Administrator's note: It is finished: Roman Opalka died yesterday in Rome at the age of 79. In memoriam, I re-post an essay I wrote on Opalka in November 2008
Roman Opalka’s artistic practice is either an undertaking of resolute heroism or an obsession bordering on insanity. Since 1965, Opalka has been inscribing a progression of numbers on canvas. The canvas size is always the same (196 x 135 cm), as is the brush (size 0) and the pigment (white acrylic). There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that the idea came to Opalka while waiting for his wife in a café. If true, this story attests to the fact that the most “successful” ideas are “ludicrously simple” or, at the very least, simply “inevitable.”(1)
I want to discuss Opalka’s work from three theoretical vantages, two of which have to my knowledge not been previously suggested as ways to interpret his project. The one theory universally addressed is the idea that Opalka’s counting represents his comprehension of his mortality, that this is his way of “marking” his time on earth. I would add to this that his work ought to then be considered as truly time-based. This term has become an accepted and generic catch-all for video, aural or performative work but we must clearly understand the relevance of it in relation to Opalka; after all, his work is more fully “based” in time than most simple narrative-form video.
Which allows me to introduce the first of my “new” takes on Opalka: I believe his work reflects a post-narrative approach that dismantles our apprehension of a work of art as a “story” that can be “read.” Similar to the way Stan Douglas’s “Overture” disrupts a viewer’s sense of narrative structure through repetition of its audio and visual components, an Opalka painting disrupts one’s apprehension of it as a “work.” Opalka’s paintings are “details” of the larger “story” from the artist’s entire oeuvre, his life’s project.(2) It is a “work” we cannot fully “read” and the knowledge that he is still at work on his project negates the (modernist) interpretation of his practice as manifesting “wholeness” within the object.
Moreover, Opalka is as much “performance artist” as painter. His project is clearly performative as he counts “time,” recording (since 1968) himself counting numbers as he paints them.(3) Exactly why his work is not discussed as “performance” remains to be articulated but probably reflects the prejudicial attitudes of critics who cry that “painting is dead” every few years; if Opalka merely filmed himself counting he would probably have become the darling of “time-based” art. His inscribed numerals record his performance in a way that film never could - the finality of his passage through time is a “play” that is memorialized in each “detail.”
Opalka has referred to his project as “a conceptual report with the infinite.”(4) It is truly a conceptual art “work” and categorically disproves the oft-bandied theory that conceptualism has “dematerialized” the “work” of art. Currently continuing, this particular “work” of art is possibly as close as one person has come in “reporting” on humankind’s connection and access to the Infinite.
1. “Some ideas are logical in conception and illogical perceptually. The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.” from Sol Lewitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, originally published in Artforum, June 1967.
2. Opalka refers to his paintings as “details” and each bears the same title on the reverse: “OPALKA 1965/1-∞ (Infinity)”, although some additionally include the numerical range painted on the front, i.e., “460260-484052.”
3. On July 22, 2004, Le Monde reported that he reached 5,486,028.
4. The work by Roman Opalka.