New York

Roman Opalka

John Weber Gallery

In stark contrast to those chameleon-like artists who seem to change directions at the first drop of a new trend stands Roman Opalka, whose career is a paradigm of relentless, singleminded, creative pursuit. Since 1965 Opalka, a Pole now living in France, has followed a strictly determined course: his aim is to make paintings and related photo- and audio-documentation based on the progressive listing of numbers. His activities over the last 27 years have been governed by a rigorous, rule-oriented, and repetitive method.

The paintings, which Opalka calls “details,” are the product of a series of “always.” Opalka always begins in the upper left and always inscribes horizontal rows of numbers in sequential, increasing order across the entire surface of the canvas, which always measures 7-by-5 feet. Having started with 1, 2, 3, he recently passed 3,496,667. He always paints the numbers in white acrylic on a gray background; with each new “detail” he always adds one percent more white to the background. Using a remote shutter he always photographs himself each day he works on a painting, and he always says each number as he paints it and tape-records his verbal count.

This show revealed Opalka’s remarkable ability to concretize the evanescent occurrence of time passing. It contained seven of Opalka’s most recent “details,” a few older examples, some drawings of numbers, tapes of Opalka’s voice counting numbers in Polish (he always counts in Polish), and photographs of the artist-taken at different times. In the “details” time is pictorialized in the tone and shading of the surface as well as in the markings themselves. A comparison of the earlier and recent examples on view here demonstrated the gradual lightening that has resulted from the addition of more white to the backgrounds with each new canvas. The tapes and photographs imprint specific moments, and they document the artist’s own aging process.

The viewer is invited to think about Opalka’s work even more than to see or hear it. It provides an enveloping experience which invites speculation on the implications of the cycle of life for which the notion of time passing is but a metaphor, and on the human urge for regularity, rationality, and control which is implicit in the work. And Opalka’s art is stated in the uncompromising and terse terms of universal symbols—numerals.

Ronny H. Cohen