Imagine an artist spending most of his working life dedicated to one subject, method and image. It might seem like a restrictive eccentricity, but this is what Roman Opalka chose to dedicate himself to from 1965 until his death in 2011. ‘One to Infinity’ was a project conceived as numbers being painted in logical sequence for the rest of his life. Aiming to reach infinity, but knowing that this was inherently impossible, Opalka spent each working day making a series of paintings which had no end. His artistic life became predetermined by mathematics and time.
In a remarkable exhibition of paintings exhibited at Christie’s Mayfair, we can see the aspiration of this fascinating artist whose art and life became interdependent. Each day’s work would be entirely laid out in an unending repetition. It would have demanded a level of Zen-like discipline and commitment, reminiscent of a life spent meditating in which a recurring action becomes integral to the experience of life. Conceptually, there are few other artists to match this endurance. On Kawara’s paintings of specific dates bears a resemblance but not quite the consistency or sheer laborious effort.
Opalka’s paintings string together numbers in a flowing mechanical expression of painterly movement across the surface of the canvas in real time. Each number becomes larger by one unit in a ceaseless push towards infinity. These numbers begin from the left when the white pigment is brightest but as he moves rightwards sometimes the individual digits begin to fade as the paint is lost from the brush. As he expresses each increasing numeric value, so they begin to disappear. From 1972, Opalka began to add 1% more white to the supporting canvas colour so that individual numbers fade away like carved letters being eroded from old headstones. Multiple canvases in the exhibition gradually lose their clarity as if Opalka’s own life force was draining away.
In the first room, we see two photographic self-portraits side by side over the space of what appears to be at least two decades. At the end of each working day, he would record the physical features of his face as a record of age impressed upon the body. A sound track also amplifies his voice recounting the numbers he’s painted thereby aligning different media in the same quixotic quest.
An early work from 1963 hints at his almost obsessive interest in methodical application. In ‘Chronome III’ flecks of tempera are applied to the canvas in order to fill it with marks made by the artist’s hand so that they begin to resemble individual hairs on an animal’s pelt. He’s beginning to articulate time as a series of actions on the canvas.
How can we make sense of these obsessive and repetitive paintings? It’s probably best to think of them as a quest that would only end in death, each paint stroke like breath exhaled from the conscious body. Historically, we are so familiar with the relationship between art and representation that the Conceptual audacity of Opalka’s work still seems radical and challenging today 50 years after he first began the project. These paintings remain beautiful in their austerity and purity. Merging the certainty of numbers, the structure of time and the limits of the human body, Opalka’s ‘One to Infinity’ contemplates his own life as it unfolded. He tests this experience to its limit. As we walk from one painting to the next witnessing their immensity and distance from infinity, we can admire Opalka’s fierce and unyielding dedication. As he drew a little closer, reaching over five million, he still remained far from his goal, each number resembling a beat, a fraction of tangible time made visible.