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Details & Cataloguing

In Context Italian Art

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London

Roman Opalka
1931 - 2011
OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞  DÉTAIL – 3843982 – 3864277 
titled on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
196 by 135 cm. 77 1/8 by 52 3/8 in.
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Provenance

Galerie Nathalie Seroussie, Paris

Acquired from the above by the present owner

Exhibited

Salzburg, Internationale Sommerakademie für Bildende Kunst, Roman Opalka, April – August 1991, p. 4, illustrated

London, Christie’s Mayfair, Roman Opalka: The End is Defined, January – April 2015, p. 65, illustrated

Catalogue Note

Roman Opalka’s conceptual journey is without precedent within twentieth-century art history: through his mission to paint every single number between one and infinity on a series of canvases – or ‘Details’ – the artist strove to give expression to the Infinite. This truly monumental task resulted in the creation of a series of works endowed with an elegant simplicity that reflect the highly philosophical and meditative character of the project, through calling the nature of infinity itself into question. Opalka enjoyed relationships of immense mutual influence and respect with the Italian artists of the Twentieth Century, primarily through his deep engagement with the ZERO group. ZERO was a movement of immense historical importance, founded in the late 1950s and presaging later developments in Conceptualism, Minimalism, and Land Art. Through his participation in the group, Opalka was able to collaborate and engage in a creative exchange with such Italian heavyweights as Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Enrico Castellani, and Agostino Bonalumi. Works such as OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞  Détail  3843982 – 3864277 attest to the febrile atmosphere of artistic dialogue and conceptual progression that these relationships engendered. One can also observe the influence that Opalka exerted over artists like Alighiero Boetti, who shared his preoccupation with numbers and sequencing and created works that were similarly focussed on the impossibility of comprehending the infinite. This work is one of only 233 examples of this size, which took a lifetime to complete. Other such works are held in the permanent collections of prestigious museums like the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the National Gallery, Berlin, and the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Japan.

Opalka began his astonishing magnum opus in 1965, when he commenced painting the numbers one through to infinity on a series of canvases, a task the artist referred to as “a philosophical and spiritual image of the progression of time and of life and death” (Roman Opalka cited in: The Telegraph, Obituary, 26th August 2011, online resource). The numbers on each canvas progressed in horizontal rows from the upper left and concluded at the lower right corner, with each successive painting beginning where the previous one left off. As the integers mounted up their chromatic intensity waned as Opalka's brush was depleted of paint before being replenished once again to inscribe initially brighter numbers. The works are each labelled 1965/1-∞, Detail followed by the first and last number on the canvas, marking the year Opalka began his enterprise and, by signifying one to infinity, implicating the purely hypothetical nature of the Infinite. As a concept we are unable to truly imagine, Opalka succeeded in visualising the Infinite in the purest sense possible, through numerical delineations marking the inexorable passage of time. Although attaining infinity is a theoretical impossibility, Opalka’s painstaking attempt to transcribe every possible number that ever has - or shall - exist was epic in scope: a task that serves to broaden the mind and expand the mental horizons of all who contemplate the result.

On attaining the milestone of a million painted digits in 1972, Opalka began photographing himself before each work: these portraits, which documented his process of ageing, became the means by which his ambitions of interminability were confronted by the inevitability of his own mortality. Although Opalka began by painting white numbers on a black background, in 1968 he changed to a grey background, a colour he believed to be more neutral, and in the early 1970s he decided to add one percent more white to this grey ground with each new 'Detail,’ the increasing whiteness of the paint being intended to signify the infinity that his numbers could never, ultimately, denote. Towards the end of this endeavour, in 2008, the canvases had become entirely white, rendering the on-going stream of numerals near invisible. Opalka’s astounding corpus compresses concepts of time and space into a single defined moment, an idea the artist discussed with reference to the very beginning of his project: “In my concept… the always finished part of my oeuvre dates from 1965: the sign 1, laid on the first Detail, there is already all” (Roman Opalka cited in: Christine Savinel, Jacques Roubaud and Bernard Noël, Eds., Roman Opalka, Paris 1996, p. 17). Within Opalka’s entire oeuvre, OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞  Détail  3843982 – 3864277 stands as an impressive record of the artist’s astonishing philosophical and creative feat: a unique and unsurpassed record of a constant striving towards the infinite, and correspondingly, of immortality itself.

 

In Context Italian Art

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London