Roman Opalka (1931-2011) the French-born Polish painter who dedicated his life to measuring time, and Darren Almond (1971- ), the British artist whose varied practice incorporates film, sculpture, and photography.
‘This year is the 50th anniversary of Roman Opałka’s first Détail painting, produced in 1965,’ explains Christie’s specialist Jacob Uecker. ‘We thought that it would be the ideal moment to hold an exhibition celebrating his work.’
Roman Opałka: The End is Defined opens at Christie’s Mayfair on 29 January, and is presented alongside a second exhibition Darren Almond: Present Form.
What is the Détail series?
‘In 1965,’ Uecker explains, ‘Opalka drew the number 1 in white paint at the top left hand corner of a black canvas.’ This act marked the beginning of a lifelong project. Opałka would paint numbers everyday until his death in 2011, gradually increasing the amount of white pigment in each canvas. Each work was called a Détail and all had the same title: Opalka 1965/1-∞.
Left, top: Roman Opałka, Opałka 1965/1-∞
Below: Détail 738,592 – 742,080. Indian ink on paper. 13 x 9 ½ in. (33.1 × 24 cm.)
Right, top: Roman Opałka, Opałka 1965/1-∞
Below: Détail 4,866,285 – 4,868,805. Indian ink on paper. 13 x 9 ½ in. (33.1 × 24 cm.)
What are the highlights of The End is Defined show?
‘The End is Defined will feature many examples from the series of Détails that Opałka painted, ranging from a very early one painted before he crossed the one million mark, to those which are completely white,’ says Jacob Uecker.
‘We will also include a very early and rare work that predates the Détail series, but indicates the direction that his work would take — towards a visual language of numbers for which he is now so well-known.’
Roman Opałka, Chronome III.
Tempera on canvas. 29 x 23 ⅞ in. (73.8 x 61 cm.)
Why the obsession with time?
The idea came to Opałka on a cold winter’s day in Warsaw when, waiting for his wife and friends in a café, he became aware of the passing of time — and with it, his own life.
The Détail series was the result of a number of years spent thinking about how time could be visualised. This was not time as we understand it everyday — as a convenient means of fixing moments for meetings or morning alarms — but as something which was vast and irreversible.
What was his process?
Standing almost immobile at his easel, Opałka would paint around 400 figures a day, increasingly working into the deepest hours of the night. He avoided taking holidays, continuing his paintings with black ink on ordinary white paper where travel was unavoidable.
‘Everyday, when he finished his work in the studio, Opałka took a photograph of himself in the same pose, with the same facial expression. That was also part of the work,’ says Emilio Steinberger, the director of Dominique Lévy Gallery who regularly worked with the artist.
‘The exhibition at Christie’s will include an audio recording of Opałka counting while painting — something that he did for every Détail painting he made’ adds Jacob Uecker.
Roman Opałka, Opałka 1965/1-∞
A pair of portrait photographs. Gelatin silver print 77 x 53 in. (196 x 135 cm.)
How far did he get?
Opałka’s biggest innovation was to change the background of his works: in 1968, he began lightening the canvas to grey, reasoning it’s ‘neither a symbolic colour, nor an emotional one’.
Top: Roman Opałka, Opałka 1965/1-∞
Above: Détail 1,987,108 - 2,010,495. Oil on canvas 77 ⅛ x 53 ⅛ in. (196 x 135 cm.)
He anticipated his canvas would be entirely white when he reached 7777777, adding, somewhat darkly, ‘My objective is to get up to the white on white and still be alive.’ Some critics saw his project as a sort of suicide, and Opałka did nothing to counter this interpretation.
The artist surpassed his goal of an all-white painting when he exceeded five million in 2008. His death ultimately decided the last number he would paint — when he passed away in 2011, he had reached 5,607,249.
Roman Opałka, Opałka 1965/1-∞
Détail 3,996,082 – 4,021,853. Oil on canvas. 77 ⅛ x 53 ⅛ (196 x 135 cm.)
Is this fascination with time not rather morbid?
‘To me, it’s not morbid: it’s just facing what everyone else is conscious of but tries to avoid,’ says Steinberger. ‘It’s not about thinking, ‘I’m going to die’ but about being present.’
The idea of infinity also offers some optimism: ‘In Opałka‘s 1965/1-∞ paintings, the idea of infinity suggests that after his death his own work has entered into a realm where it continues to exist beyond his life and the picture plane’.
Why is it fitting for Almond and Opałka to be exhibited together?
Like Opałka, explains Uecker ‘Almond has always been very interested in the idea of time and our desire to capture it — to anchor our presence in the world — and our inability to do so.’
What can we expect to see at Christie’s?
Highlights of Darren Almond: Present Form include Apollo, a group bronze sculptures which explore the connection — and distance — between man and the moon.
Darren Almond, Apollo 14, 2013
Polished bronze and lead. Dimensions variable. Edition of 1 plus 1 AP
Alongside these is a series of photographs entitled Present Form, depicting the standing stones on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The stones predate Stonehenge, and form what’s considered to be the first lunar calendar or lunar clock.
Darren Almond, Present Form: Fjórir, 2012
Set of 5 photographs, edition of 1 plus 1 AP. 119 ½ x 71 ¼ in. (303.5 x 181 cm.) (unframed).
Opałka physically measured time by painting, how does Almond do it?
‘He’s always shot images under a full moon with a very long exposure — sitting for 15 minutes, giving moonlight time to seep through into the film’.
‘That extended exposure is an invitation for us to meditate on time. It pushes the boundaries of photography, asking us to contemplate the ways it can both stretch time and consider the moment.’
Opałka’s practice feels like a very personal, private endeavour. What inspires Almond’s work?
‘Almond is always hungry for new experiences: he travels to faraway locations, usually working in harsh environments in stormy weather’.
These locations are often connected to artists or writers who’ve left an imprint on him. The curator of a recent exhibition of Almond's works comments: ‘He’s very humble in that sense — that’s something I personally find very touching’.
Who collects the artists’ works?
Roman Opałka has a serious base of collectors interested, not only in the artist’s unique visual language, but in the concept behind his practice: the idea of a life measured in numbers, and the notion of infinity.
Darren Almond has developed a solid international collection base, and the variety of his practice means there is a great deal of interest in his work. ‘I am sure we will continue to see his market flourish in coming years,’ comments Uecker.
As the elder of the two artists, what’s Opałka’s legacy?
‘To me, he was the starting point for conceptual art,’ says Steinberger. ‘This is not just surface-driven idea, but the idea of putting a whole person into a work. There’s intense feeling and effort under the sublime beauty of the surface — it’s a rare combination.’
Uecker summarises: ‘Roman Opałka is truly one of the great conceptual artists of the 20th Century; I hope he will become known to an even wider audience in the coming years.’