In 1965, in his studio in Warsaw, Opalka began painting a process of counting - from one to infinity. Starting in the top left-hand corner of the canvas and finishing in the bottom right-hand corner, the tiny numbers are painted in horizontal rows. Each new canvas, which the artist calls a 'detail', takes up counting where the last left off. Each 'detail' is the same size (196 x 135 cm), the dimension of his studio door in Warsaw. All details have the same title, 1965/1-00; the idea does not date although the artist has pledged his life to its execution: 'All my work is a single thing, the description from number one to infinity. A single thing, a single life'.
Over the years there have been some changes to the ritual. In Opalka's first details he painted white numbers onto a black background. In 1968 he changed to a grey background 'because its not a symbolic colour, nor an emotional one', and in 1972 he decided he would gradually lighten this grey background by adding 1 per cent more white to the ground with each passing detail. He expects to be painting virtually in white on white by the time he reaches 7 777 777, about a decade away at the current rate: 'My objective is to get up to the white on white and still be alive'.
In 1968 Opalka introduced a tape recorder, speaking each number into the microphone as he paints it, and he also began photographing himself standing before the canvas after each day's work, a ritual bookkeeping of time passing. The process is endless, but measured against its goal - infinity - it is as naught: 'the problem is that we are, and are about not to be'.
Opalka passed away in Italy, on August 6, 2011. His final number painted was 5607249.
(Source: National Gallery of Australia, http://nga.gov.au)
1 - 'Etude sur le mouvement', 1960.
2 and 3 - '1965/1-00, Detail'; synthetic polymer paint on canvas. 196.8 (h) x 135.3 (w) cm. © Roman Opalka.