Roman Opalka (Polish/French, 1931–2011) was a leading Conceptual artist best known for his series of numerical paintings. A few years after his birth in Hocquincourt, France, he and his Polish family returned to their motherland, only to be deported to Germany by National Socialists in 1940. In 1946, the Opalka family was liberated by the US Army, and they returned to Poland once again. Opalka began an apprenticeship as a lithographer at Walbrzych Nowa Ruda Graphic School, Poland, and, in 1949, he began his studies at the Lódz School of Art and Design, Poland. In 1956, the artist received a degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where he had studied since 1950.
Opalka was inspired by Neo-Constructivists early on in his career. These early paintings, which the artist referred to as “Chronomes,” were made up of dabs and zigzags created using monochrome paint. The artist’s lifetime work of consecutive numerical paintings began in 1965, and by 1970 he had devoted himself to the goal of reaching infinity. Before he settled in southern France in 1977, Opalka was granted the DAAD Scholarship in Berlin, Germany. The artist spent most of his life working from his home in France; Opalka rarely traveled because he wanted to continue painting his famous numerical canvases.
There are 233 “details” in this series titled OPALKA 1965/1 – 8, all having the same measurements of 196 x 135 cm. The works in this series are all in shades of black, gray, and white. At first, Opalka used a black background on his canvases, and he painted the numbers using white paint and the smallest brush he could find. The artist would paint around 400 numbers a day, and after a few years he began photographing himself in front of his paintings at the end of a work day. By 1972 he had begun to record his voice calling out the numbers he painted onto the canvas. At this time he also changed the background color of the works in the series to gray, and he added one percent more white paint to every canvas; by 2008, the background and the numbers were virtually the same shade of white. Before his death, Opalka reached past the number 5,500,000. These numerical paintings were very important to Opalka because he viewed them as his life in time or time in life. His paintings reference passing time and how long time exists, while his photographs reference the artist’s life as seen through the progression of these numbers. Opalka died while on a trip to Rome on August 6, 2011.