ROMAN OPAŁKA. A Time of Life or Time of Painting?

BY Ludovico Pratesi

Reflections on the works of Roman Opałka (1931-2011). Conceptual artist in need to represent irreversible time

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1965. Incipit

In 1965 Roman Opałka decided to set forth a new stage of research in regard to the representation of irreversible time. He began by painting a small number “one” with white paint in the upper left hand corner of a black rectangular canvas; this number is in fact the first Détail, as a fragment of a never-ending project. This symbolic gesture was to condition his entire existence, in representing the numeric sequence of his life, measured by the passage of time and expressed through a succession of numeric figures that today exceed the number 5,500,000, continuing on towards infinity.

“For a long time I wanted to start a piece that could be the most rigorous of works possible, but not until 1965 was I able to structure my thoughts and devise a project that would respond to this desire for rigor” – the artist states. What were the reasons for this choice that led him to bring about such an extreme and absolute change, not only to his art, but above all to his very life, to be regulated by such painstaking and even obsessive discipline?

Roman Opałka at the opening of exhibition in Michela Rizzo
Gallery, Venice, 3 June, 2011, archive of the Gallery

The image of time, from the Chronome to the Détail

“At the end of the fifties, a great number of artistic concepts were present in many minds. There in fact seemed to be a certain ‘spirit of the times’. In 1957, before my first stay in Paris, for a few weeks I had been using numeric figures in my work much like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg did in the United States.”


He was born 27 August, 1931 in Abbeville-Saint-Lucien (France), died 6 August, 2011 in Rome. Painter and graphic designer, conceptual artist. He lived in France from 1977 until his death.

This article by an art historian and curater from Italy Ludovico Pratesi comes from the catalogue of the last monographic exhibition of the artist Il Tempo della Pittura (Michela Rizzo Gallery, Venice, Palazzo Palumbo Fossati, 3 June – 29 October 2011) curated by Pratesi.

With this statement, Opałka demonstrates his interest in numbers intended as images rather than as simple painted symbols, already present in the form of a chromatic points in the series entitled Chronome, which immediately preceded the Détail series.

In the Chronomes the artist explains – “the idea of time was already present, but it was a reversible time, similar to an hour-glass or clock: an atomisation, as the repetitive spatialisation of reversible time.”

This seemingly obvious passage is actually very significant, because it allows the artist to overcome the arbitrariness of the sign or symbol with the precision of a direct and objective image. Furthermore, the identification of a code constitutes a clear and definite expressive circuit, leaving no room for variations on the theme, different styles or exercises of mannerism. This parameter can perform the same function as the preceding pictorial signs, while it is situated in a grid structure of semantic rules, according to the need to search for an absolute that is shared by other artists of the same conceptual matrix such as Hanne Darboven, Mel Bochner, Giulio Paoloni or Giovanni Anselmo.


At the same time, Opałka’s artistic path, started with his activities as an engraver at the beginning of the fifties started to investigate the abstract-geometric line of Władysław Strzemiński (1893-1952), founder of Unism. The works of Strzemiński, presented at an exhibition in Art Museum in Łódź where the artist, in 1931, showed his first exhibit dedicated to the international collection of modern art, were inspired by the union between form and colour, according to a principle that sees the material work of art as the “organicity of a spatial phenomenon”.

The necessity to attain an “intellectually legitimate” style of painting was put forward to Opałka by the lessons of Unism, which was clearly visible in comparing the tight-net texture of signals present in Composition uniste as well as in Chronome, which Opałka started in 1959 and finished in 1963.

Il Tempo della Pittura, Michela Rizzo Gallery,
photo: Kalina Cyz

It was Opałka himself who pushed forward the rapid evolution of his artistic philosophy in that decade: “In 1958, having become a non-figurative painter, I became oriented towards informal structures and gradually towards systems that could express the very properties and qualities of an infinitesimal scale”. After a trip to Paris in 1957, Opałka completed a series of works that were tied to the informal, such as Feast of Bacchus (1959), as well as Omikron (1965), a canvas covered with small white brush strokes, similar to the Achrome by Piero Manzoni or to the monochromes by Robert Ryman.

“These canvases were not the steps of a path towards monochrome: more simply they dealt with painting on white that activated certain vertical movements in order to leave traces of horizontal rhythms.”

… or concept?

The reading and study of certain philosophical texts such as Herbert Marcuse’s writings on Culture and Society, or Per Marx by Louis Althusser, published in France in 1965, led Opałka to reflect on the Marxist idea of modern art intended as an “abstract form of the idea of progress” reinforced by Althusser’s theory that saw “ideology as an expression of the relationship between mankind and its world”.

Such theses reveal themselves as fundamental for the theoretic construction of the theoretic principles of conceptual construct, expressed in the theories of Daniel Buren, which, in a text published in 1969, indicates painting as “theory or theoretical practice”, or by Sol Lewitt, who states how “in conceptual art, the idea or the concept is the most important aspect of the work”.

In his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, published in Artforum in 1967, Lewitt stated: “Conceptual artist have the objective of making their work mentally interesting for the viewer, hence they should hope not to cause any emotion whatsoever.”

In this sense, Opałka’s position distinguishes itself from the simple documentation of thought obtained through the registration of impersonal and objective data. “My work expresses emotion and invites one to share in that. I do not hesitate in placing this conceptual process somewhere half-way between Descartes and Pascal. It is not based on any one gratuitous or brusque act, rather it stems from logical mechanisms of reflection.”

Painting as a process

The peculiarity and value of Opałka’s thinking are expressed by a harmonious balance between the conceptual rigor of a research that recognises the process of painting as its founding element, and the manual nature of such a practice, as the protagonist of the work, together with writing, photography and sound, capable of involving the viewer at a visual, mental and auditory level. The artist hence does not deny his informal training on one side, and on the other he allows for a continued interest in the physical dimension of the creative act.

Il Tempo della Pittura, Michela Rizzo Gallery,
photo: Kalina Cyz

“I am convinced that physical involvement is one of the catalysts necessary for there to be convergence of thought and action from this point of view, my work breaks away from the majority of conceptual practices.”

The binary nature of the process, which covers both the single Détail as well as the entire project, is valued in its complexity in this exhibition presenting the different elements of a research that, through its simplicity, takes on the aspects of a ritual of vision. It becomes a classical ritual, governed by an absolute semantic code in its objective precision: to represent irreversible time.

From the number to the face

The main pole of attraction at this first Venetian retrospective dedicated to Opałka is with his Détail, as a principle generator and foundational expression of his painting. Here the gradual disappearance of the numeric figure that merges into the lower base within a dimension of whiteness is only partially averted by an audible recording of the artist’s voice counting in Polish. The disappearance of the number as an iconic sign does not however imply its disappearance as a concept, which is instead made possible by the element of sound. The image-number vanishes in the painting, but the idea-number remains, as it is guaranteed by a parallel yet complementary support system. What hence occurs is a metamorphosis of time, which takes on other appearances via the voice, photographic images and writing. Through the number-colour equation presented on canvas, irreversible time comes to deny itself, for it dissolves itself within the work, as if the Absolute forbids its very representation. By necessity, this “absolute” is forced to mutate its essence in order to maintain a visual code figuratively, and to become an icon: the photographic image of the artist's face, through his self-portraits in the same pose and donning the same clothes at the beginning and end of each day's work in the Détail series.


“The decision to photograph my face started from the imperious necessity to not forego anything of the interception of time.” In reality, the series of self-portraits abdicates from the fluidity present in Détail to fix in an image the effect that our day-to-day lives produces on the human face through the traces of the body’s inexorable decadence. If the Détail series shows expressions of a mobile and regulated time, the self-portraits impose the necessity to directly encounter the physical presence of the artist, a meeting of glances that involves our sight and view as well as our minds. Freed from the necessity to follow the numeric procession that makes up the essence of the paintings, the eye of the viewer instead concentrates on the physical characteristics of the face. In the total equivalence between art and life that characterizes Opałka’s artistic research, these works represent life for its empathic dimension, as a kind of metaphoric mirror in which the identification between spectator and artwork takes place. Opałka’s face is raised to a kind of memento mori, as an iconic landscape where every detail is proof of the passage of time, much like the points that constitute the patterns in the Chronome. The works are happenstance yet significant in composing the geography of a physical memory of experience that is both cruel and absolute in its subjectivity, comparative and comforting in its objectivity.

Travel documents

Over the course of voyages, numbers have become graphic symbols and the numeric figure has been turned into writing. The Carte de Voyage (Travelling Documents) correspond with the carnets de dessins of Grand Tour travellers, who took notes on the landscape, details and glimpses of places visited, as to compose an itinerary marked by memory. On these sheets of paper, all the same size (33,2 x 24 cm), are noted numeric progressions that follow those of the last concluded Détail, which the artist wrote with black ink during the long trip from his studio in Bazérac, in France.

Upon his return, he concluded the work before beginning the new Détail, where he placed the number that followed the one concluding Carte. Presented in Venice together with the self-portraits, these documents conclude our embarkment around the art of Opałka, one of the most rigorous and punctual expressions in (and not limited to) contemporary painting.


“My path is inseparable from these three intentions: to explain, meditate and share.”

Quotations from Roman Opałka come from Opałka 1965 / 1 – ∞, Paris 1992

translated by Alexander Sera