OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞ DETAIL 5210331 - 5226270

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  • Provenance

    Cueto Project, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Brussels, La Verrière Hermès, Roman Opalka – OPALKA 1965 /1-∞, 10 September - 17 November 2001
    Murten, Expo 02, Octogone OPALKA, May - October 2002
    Zug, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grande rétrospective Roman Opalka, September - November 2003
    Montbéliard, Centre Régional Art Contemporain, A visages Découverts, Le Dix-Neuf, 30 September - 25 November 2005
    Le Cateau-Cambrésis, Musée départemental Matisse, Avant-gardes polonaises, 1 July – 1 October 2006
    New York, Cueto Project, OPALKA 1965 / 1-∞, 10 May – 30 June 2007

  • Catalogue Essay

    The present work by Roman Opalka, OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞ DETAIL 5210331 - 5226270, is a product of one of the most profoundly existential projects in the canon of 20th century art history. The work is a quintessential and tranquil canvas from the artist’s life work, The Finite Defined by the Non-Finite. With his oeuvre serving as a metaphor for human existence, a diary in paint, each canvas shows his fundamental concern with the passage of time. The present work, a chronical of the artist’s time, represents a stage of silent drama which encapsulates the artist’s existence. White numerals executed onto a near-white canvas place the work amongst the later of the Franco-Polish conceptual artist’s ‘details’.

    In 1965, whilst waiting in a café, Opalka decided to paint time. Not horological objects but rather the passage of time itself. This unbounded project became the artist’s life work. Committing himself to numerical order, Opalka reduced his activity to a singular, linear process, the natural progression of time. Based in his studio in Warsaw, Poland, Opalka commenced his quixotic project, painting numbers from one to infinity onto a black ground. Referring to his canvasses as ‘details’, the artist afforded each ‘detail’ from his sequential oeuvre a systematic and methodical title, "OPALKA 1965/1 - ∞" followed by ‘DETAIL’ and the first and last number on the canvas. Routinely working from the upper left of the canvas, the artist’s oeuvre is composed of intricate lines of white numerals, ordered in neat rows that progress until the lower right corner. Applying acrylic paint to the surface of the plane with a fine brush, always of the same size, Opalka methodically and rigorously pursued his path to infinity. Sequential canvasses, called ‘details’, come together to complete the artist’s quixotic project and conceptual oeuvre. In 1968, the artist changed his ground to a, in his opinion, more neutral grey. He simultaneously added further dimension to his project, recording, in his native Polish, the numbers he was painting and accompanying certain ‘details’ with photographs of himself before and after the completion of the canvas. No longer simply documenting the passing of time in the abstract, the artist began documenting the inevitable effect of mortality upon his own physical appearance, tracing his physical quest toward infinity alongside the numerical pursuit. Sacrificing himself to the task he had set himself, the artist recorded his own human degeneration alongside the never-ending potential of his infinite project. Referring to his ambitious scheme, the artist notes that he ‘defined a concept relating to the image of the irreversible time of a person's lifespan, duration visualized by the series of numbers from 1 to infinity’ (Roman Opalka, quoted in http://opalka1965.com/, online).

    In 1972 the artist gradually began adding 1 percent more white pigment to the ground colour, steadily moving his ‘details’ towards a white background. Pure white, which Opalka coined ‘blanc mérité’ – well-earned white, was achieved in 2008, after which the artist was applying white numerals onto white ground. Each digit, equal in size yet unequal, is painted by hand. Whilst consistent, the figures are divergent in size and weight allowing the composition to become a dizzying array of pattern. Moving toward the absolute, the artist bound himself to the invisible and colossal intrigues of the universe. Inherently contradictory, each canvas took the artist closer to the infinite, yet each ‘Detail’ was a finished work, a definitive entity with both a start and a finish. Divided by the limitations of each canvas, measuring 196 x 135 - the size of his studio door, the project was delineated, yet had no apparent end. Whilst never repeating himself numerically, the task was characteristically based upon repetitive action. For Opalka his undertaking, like life, was essentially paradoxical. In the same way that life is dependent upon death, his project was dependent upon the impossible task of completion. Commenting on the perplexity of life, Opalka noted ‘Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance; we are at the same time alive and in the face of death–that is the mystery of all living beings. The consciousness of this inevitable disappearance broadens our experiences without diminishing our joy’ (Roman Opalka quoted in, Phil Davison, ‘Roman Opalka: Polish-French conceptual artist who explored the passing of time in an extraordinary series of canvases’, The Independent, 26 August 2011, online). Confirming the artist’s preoccupation with the contradictory nature of existence, he titled his life’s work The Finite Defined by the Non-Finite.

    Moving towards infinity in numerals, the artist was also moving towards an infinite plane. A plane which was to be white, enhanced with white characters, a limitless tone within which the viewer would become overwhelmed. Engulfing the onlooker’s visual field, Opalka’s unlimited numerical journey is mirrored by Yayoi Kusama’s fascination with the illusion of infinity, an endless vision that is evident in her earliest paintings, sculptures and installations. The repetitive patterns of her Infinity Net paintings meet to form a seemingly endless lattice, suggesting an overwhelmingly unbounded structure. Like Opalka’s opus, Kusama’s kaleidoscopic compositions allow the contemplation of infinity as a celebration of life and its aftermath.

    On 6th August 2011, Opalka passed away. He completed his project at 5607249; physically reaching infinity he concluded the paradox which motivated his distinctive artistic output. Strictly elegant, the present work is a capsule from the artist’s immaculate and impossible project, capturing the transient nature of time. Opalka’s work serves as an unprecedented effort to bring a life in the artist’s studio into a pictorial unity and psychological documentation of time. What had commenced as a quest towards the infinite, and a composed document of being, became an expression and celebration of life as it was lived by the artist.


OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞ DETAIL 5210331 - 5226270

titled '"OPALKA 1965/1 - ∞ DETAIL - 5210331 - 5226270"' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
196.5 x 135.2 cm (77 3/8 x 53 1/4 in.)
Conceived in 1965. This work will be included in the Roman Opalka Catalogue Raisonné currently under preparation by Michel Baudson under number D478.

£400,000 - 600,000 ‡ ♠

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061 hhighley@phillips.com

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 8 March 2018