New York

Roman Opalka

John Weber Gallery

Roman Opalka’s work makes me shudder. This was the second installation I’ve seen of his 1 – ∞ (one to infinity) paintings of white numbers on a gray ground exhibited with an audio-tape of his sonorous counting in Polish. His enterprise is so immediately apparent, and the look of the installation is so funereal, that I was quickly scared out of the gallery. It’s simply macabre, a yeady Kafkaesque fantasy. Opalka makes On Kawara seem like an artist of infinite variety doing work that’s positively rich with allusions to the moment and conditions of its making. At least with those paintings of the time in the morning the artist awoke you can imagine what the weather was like there, what he had to do that day besides the painting. First he gets on a robe if it’s cold, and then he goes to a drawer for his stencil . . . But Opalka seems invariable, a slack system, a locked circuit. Like a computer terminal simply reading out its readiness for some work.

Perhaps some rhythm underlies Opalka’s activity. There’s a variant pressure of touch that makes some numbers whiter than others. Perhaps they get whitest at the primes, or at numbers divisible by his age, and then fade to gray. (I was told later that he calls his paintings “details,” and that he whitens the ground of each succeeding work by one percent.) He’s making an endless series of field paintings which are kind of lovely, like frost on an incinerator. Still, as a register of consciousness, these things are scary. He’s thinking one thing and painting one way. It’s the pleasures of orderly progression, maybe, the truth to a procedure. The tapes indicate that Opalka is performing through his paintings. But it’s a drama that’s not going to go anyplace. Opalka’s relationship to his audience is as singularly obsessive as some mad person living out a life as if forever reciting before some imagined assembly. Is there some kind of reach in this process? I mean is some transcendence immanent in his counting?

Alan Moore