Roman Opałka - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, February 12, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Roman Opalka, 'OPALKA 1965/1 – 8 DETAIL 4514079 – 4536373', Lot 40

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 13 February

  • Provenance

    Gallery Thomas Zander, Cologne
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2012

  • Catalogue Essay

    ‘I took my body, my length, my existence as I have often said, as a sort of pictorial sacrifice and the essence, the embodiment of this procedure, creates a work much the same as we all create works with our lives. Every time that I add a number, everything changes. It is a sort of journey, if you will, where the steps are conscious each and every time, each step adds to the others, the weight of the duration of all these steps that you have lived’ – Roman Opałka

    As part of an extensive project dedicated to time – constituting his nearly fifty-year long Detail series – the Franco-Polish artist Roman Opałka once stated that his ‘fundamental proposition, the programme of his life, can be witnessed in a work process which records a progression – both a document of time and its own definition’ (Roman Opałka, Roman Opałka: Artist Statement, available online). An exceptionally early example from this visionary impulse, OPAŁKA 1965/1 – ∞ DETAIL 4514079 - 4536373, 1965, forms the bedrock of the artist's painterly output. From 1965 onwards, he not once ceased to create dizzying, ethereal works, all achieved with the same formula and in the same size, by adding minute white numerals on a near-white canvas. Seeking to visualise the irreversible passing of time, Opałka would then frequently photograph his ageing body next to the whitening canvases, exploring the body’s vulnerabilty in contrast to the immortality of writing. A paradigmatic example of his unwavering pursuit and enduring legacy, DETAIL 4514079 – 4536373 posits as a monument to the man whose life became his art, and art, his life.

    In an approach at once ritualistic and obsessive, Opałka awoke each day to count and paint, paint and count. Not simply seeking to capture measureable time – time as ‘told’ by the clock – the artist aimed to show ‘lived’ time. He achieved this by materialising endless streams of numbers, delimited painstakingly by hand using a ‘no. 0’ brush – a size he never varied – onto identically-sized canvases, emulating the exact dimensions of his studio door. Employing this method, Opałka formed abstract flows akin to digital codes or cryptograms, and continually aspired to count from one to infinity, until his own death would prevent him from going further. In 1968, he changed the background colour of his canvases to grey, and four years later, began adding 1 percent more white pigment to the ground colour, steadily moving towards a white background. This elicited a sense of ‘invisibility’, as the numbers and ground began to blend almost entirely. Pure white, which Opałka coined as ‘blanc mérité’, or ‘well-earned white’, was achieved in 2008.

    Opałka’s series of Details notably coincided with the artistic movements of Minimalism and Pop Art, forming part of a broader reconsideration of the art-object which took place throughout the 1960s. In this perspective, the affinity between the artist’s sequential canvases and On Kawara’s formulaic arrangements – documenting the passing of time in diary form – is absolute. With its idiosyncratic structure and instant graphic power, On Kawara’s May 25, 1966, notably conveys an effect analogous to that of DETAIL 4514079 – 4536373, confronting the viewer to the tangible fleetingness of time. Just as pale gradations of grey are utilised by Opałka to convey a sense of continuum, On Kawara’s dates document the linearity with which history unrolls.

    Testament to Opałka’s sacrificial artistic venture, the present work forms part of a programme that the artist defined as nonsensical. ‘This existence makes no sense; it is nonsense’, he wrote. ‘And this nonsense is my work’ ('Roman Opałka: TIME', text as presented during the symposium Time at Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam, 15 June 2007). Echoing the sentiments of the mid-20th century ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, Opałka’s work descends into the ultimate end. In this perspective, he makes reference to the repetitive nothingness of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: ‘…one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?’ Reflecting this iconic link to the literary canon, the Detail series is an extensive, modern-day memento mori. At the same time, Opałka’s practice is a celebration in humanity’s capacity to understand the brevity, and thus significance, of each passing moment.

    There is also in Opałka’s DETAIL 4514079 – 4536373 a subversion of the viewer’s traditional understanding of writing as flat, and the body as mobile. In the work, it is the numbers that come to life, and the body, by contrast, which increasingly struggles to subsist against the tides of time. Opałka controls the uncontrollable by writing down: he seizes and materialises the intangible and fleeting nature of the biological clock. In 2011, Opałka passed away, completing his project at Detail number 5607249. What had commenced as a quest towards the infinite became an expression of life as it was lived by the artist; as such, the present work exists as a timeless and unbound relic from one's existential journey.

Property from the Collection of an Important European Collector


OPAŁKA 1965/1 – ∞ DETAIL 4514079 – 4536373

titled '"OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞ DETAIL 4514079 - 4536373"' 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 Opałka Catalogue raisonné currently under preparation by Michel Baudson under number D430.

£250,000 - 300,000 

Sold for £471,000

Contact Specialist

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099
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Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 February 2020