Roman Opalka: the artist who tried to paint the infinite
Roman Opalka (1931-2011) was a Polish conceptual artist, born in France, who spent his artistic career painting numbers, a functional activity for the graphic representation of the passing of time. He started at number 1, in 1965, and spent all the days of his life drawing the following numbers, reaching the number 5,607,249 on August 5, 2011, the eve of his death.
For his first canvas, or “detail” as he called it, Roman decided on a black background of 195 x 135 centimeters, with the height corresponding to his physical height and the width he borrowed from the door of his Warsaw studio. He started from the upper left corner, drawing the 1 on it, and continued to paint neat rows of small consecutive numbers from one side of the canvas to the other. When he reached the lower right corner he drew 35.327, but that was only the beginning of his journey to infinity.
All the paintings are called 1965/1 – ∞ .
Over the next 46 years, having spent painting sequences of numbers, Roman completed a total of 222 canvases, or details, and said he hoped to reach 7,777,777, a number with “a profound, philosophical and religious meaning”. However, death stopped him first, short of 6,000,000. The last number he painted was 5,607,249, although it’s tough to tell without checking up close, because it was painted with white paint on a white canvas.
In 1972, Roman Opalka made the decision to make each canvas 1% whiter than the previous one, so that at some point he could paint white on white, a finish he called “blanc merité” (deserved white). Opalka achieved its goal in 2008, and therefore the numbers painted during the last 3 years are all white on white.
In a 1987 essay he described the impossible challenge of painting to infinity as a metaphor for human existence. “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”.
Opalka, who lived his artistic career between Paris, Warsaw and Venice, participated in several Biennials of Art in the lagoon city and was honored with numerous awards for his artistic activity. He died in 2011 during a vacation in Italy, near Rome.