Roman Opalka (1931-2011)
OPALKA 1965/1-∞ DETAIL-1243401-1246137
signed and titled 'OPALKA 1965/1-∞ DETAILL-1243401-1246137' (on the reverse)
ink on paper
33 x 24cm.
Executed according to an artistic program conceived in 1965

This work will feature in the upcoming Catalogue raisonné being prepared by Michel Baudson.
John Weber Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1974.
New York, John Weber Gallery, Opalka 1965/1-∞ Paintings, 1974
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.
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Lot Essay

‘All my work is a single thing, the description from number one to infinity. A single thing, a single life’ – Roman Opalka

Acquired in 1974, and unseen in public since that time, the present work stems from the early phases of the singular project that consumed Roman Opałka’s life and art. In 1965, in his studio in Warsaw, he embarked upon a unique mission: to inscribe, by hand, the numbers from one to infinity. Pursued religiously until his death in 2011, this remarkable undertaking gave rise to one of the twentieth century’s most profound bodies of art: an unparalleled existential thesis on the passage of time. Opałka carefully sequenced his digits across successive works, known as ‘details’, starting in the top left corner and working his way to the bottom right in horizontal rows. From a distance, the results resemble shimmering abstract constellations; only up close does their obsessive rigour become apparent. The present lot is an example of the works on paper that accompanied the artist’s paintings, typically completed while he was away and unable to access canvas. In these instances, Opałka reversed the tonalities of his paintings, working in dark ink upon a pale background.

During the first decade of his project, Opałka introduced a number of other elements to his practice. From 1968 onwards, he began to record himself speaking the numbers aloud as he painted, thereby creating an audible trace of his method. He also started taking passport-style photographs of himself before and after each day’s work, charting the physical signs of aging that encroached upon his own face. By allowing numeric logic to define his creative process, Opałka hoped to commune with the unknown forces that underpin humankind’s existence. Naturally-occurring errors within the series were enshrined as revelations: glimpses of the hitherto-invisible machinations of the universe.

Many other artists in the post-war period had responded to the notion of infinity – from Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana, to the transcendental philosophies of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, Opałka’s works invite particular comparison with On Kawara’s Date Paintings, initiated in New York in 1966, which similarly sought to record the inevitable march of time. Though rife with contradictions – at once unique and repetitive, logical yet chaotic – works such as the present are defined by a sense of peace, serenity and order in the face of the unknowable. Opałka’s mission suggested that infinity was within our grasp – a point on a spectrum that might, one day, be reached. On 6 August 2011, the artist would paint his last number – 5,607,249. The present work captures this journey in its infancy: a thrilling piece of a universal puzzle that will remain forever unresolved.

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