'In my attitude, which constitutes a program for my lifetime, progression registers the process of work, documents and defines time.
'Only one date appears, 1965, the date when the first 'Detail' came into being, followed by the sign of infinity, as well as the first and last number of the given 'detail.'
'I am counting progressively from one to infinity, on 'details' of the same format ('voyage notes' excluded), by hand, with a brush, with white paint on a grey background, with the assumption that the background of each successive detail will have 1 more white than the 'detail' before it. In connection with this, I anticipate the arrival of the moment when 'details' will be identified in white on white.
'Every 'detail' is accompanied by a phonetic registration on a tape recorder and a photographic documentation of my face'' (R. Opalka, quoted in Opalka 1965/1-****, Munich 1980, unpaged).
Roman Opalka's work consists of an incredibly disciplined, poetically restrained and austerely elegant means of capturing and crystallising the passing of time. Essentially, his work consists of counting from one, writing the numbers in paint on panels. Opalka is almost unique in his intensely single-minded dedication to a single project, a single work of art, one of the most coherent conceptual works of the Twentieth Century. With Zen-like self-control, he has devoted himself to this Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task, carrying it on decade after decade since its inception. In this sense, these Details and their accompanying documentation are the existential traces of Opalka himself, the proof of life. This rare triptych reinforces that effect: usually, his works are seen as individual panels, whereas here, the passing of time is charted all the more emphatically across the expanse of these canvases.
As the title suggests, Opalka began to paint these numbers in 1965; he began at 1, and intends to carry on until the end of his life, the 'infinity' after which he can no longer work. It is for this reason that he refers to his painted panels as 'details': they are essentially excerpts from this single, unified, over-arching work of art.
The panels consist of numbers that Opalka has painted one by one. Looking at these panels hints at the progression: where he started with 1, he has here reached almost five million, painstakingly writing each individual digit in acrylic. For several decades now, he has made a point of adding a percentage more white progressively to each work, meaning that they will gradually move towards white from grey, adding another dimension to the gradations within these various details. The work will gradually fade as it progresses, meaning that Opalka's writing would eventually be white on white, a snow-blind image. This poetic addition to his working practice emphasises the self-containment of the project while also moving towards a dazzling though opaque crescendo as the artist himself moves irrevocably towards the end of his own life and of this work. Opalka himself has been candid in explaining that, as his Details fade to white, the 'infinity' that will mark the completion of this artwork is his own death: that finality is implied and included within the very fabric of these panels and pictures, making it in a sense a colossal, constant memento mori. As he has stated, 'there is an exultation during the existence of a painter that goes, every day, towards the white. In order to have transformed pictorial whites into moral whites' (R. Opalka, quoted in Report from Roman Opalka's Home, television interview, April 1994 reproduced at www.ina.fr).
Since 1968, each number that Opalka has painted, he has read aloud in Polish and recorded as he works, and the resultant recordings are considered an integral part of the project. By reciting these numbers and recording his narration, Opalka introduced an intriguing performative dimension, while also bolstering the existential credentials of the work. Now, the passing of time crystallised in the form of the numbers on the canvas is also captured in the sound recordings which themselves take as long as they took to be made to be played. Our access to the sounds of the artist slowly working away to conjure up these numbers adds another sense, acting as a mysteriously visceral bond between the moment that the canvas was painted and our viewing of it, reinforcing the reality and enormity of what he himself has described as a 'sort of cultural sacrifice.'
This decades-long passing of time is also captured in photography. Every day, Opalka has taken a self-portrait photograph of himself in exactly the same pose and position, referring to them as 'extreme details.' Looking at the photographs from throughout the length of his career, from when he began on this epic undertaking over four decades ago, one sees the progression of the years in an almost flip-book progression, as Opalka has aged gradually. While the difference between any two sequential images is minimal, over the arc of time he has devoted to this endeavour, one can perceive subtle, gradual changes, for instance in his hair length, and thus becomes aware of his gradual ageing. The incredible single-mindedness of his work is also captured in his forward stare, as is clear in the seven photographs - a week's worth - accompanying these Detail panels, which record his appearance and, like the recordings and the paintings, his existence and his approach towards the culmination of this incredible, life-consuming and life-containing work.