Roman Opalka – Composing with time

[16/08/2011]

 

Artists who devote their entire lives to a single project are rare. Roman OPALKA will go down in art history as one of the most ascetic and most coherent of them all.
Roman Opalka died suddenly on 6 August 2011 aged 79, putting an end to a work that he began 45 years earlier, originally called 1965-∞, and now entitled 1965-2011.

Opalka possessed an extraordinary capacity for discipline that allowed him to respect one of the strictest creative protocols ever embarked upon. Every aspect of his work was entirely planned and controlled… except for the moment of its completion.
Since the very first painting covered in a series of numbers starting with 1, Opalka always used the same sized canvas, the same quality of paints, and the same paint brush.As of 1972, having reached the number 1,000,000, he radicalised and deepened his protocol by deciding to add an additional 1% of white to the background of each successive canvas (until he was effectively painting white-on-white). He also started recording his voice pronouncing the numbers he painted in Polish (his mother tongue) and taking a photograph of himself after completion of each day of work.

As the years went by, the work began to make sense as a document of time, metronomically punctuated by the advancing numbers that are both the reassuring allies of the work (artistic time as a controlled promenade) and an expression of the sadistic mechanism that leads us towards complete obliteration.

Reflecting the nature of his work, the auction market for Opalka’s works also advanced mechanically over time.
In the 1990s, his drawings and acrylics first changed hands in Warsaw, Cologne and Paris. His Detail drawings (33 x 24 cm) sold for between $2,500 and $10,000. During the last years of his life, 2008-2011, these works began fetching between 30,000 to $100,000. Moreover these works fetch higher prices in London and Paris show rooms than in Munich, Cologne, Berlin or Warsaw.
His acrylic on canvas Details which fetched on average between $60,000 and $90,000 between 1990 and 2004 began to sell for over $100,000 after 2004. But his best auction results were generated after 2010 with the sale of the Sammlung Lenz Schönberg collection on 10 February 2010 and then the Peter Stuyvesant Collection on 8 March 2010 at Sotheby’s Amsterdam. In London first of all, three acrylic works entitled Détails 5006016 – 5023628; 5023629 – 5049738; 5049739 – 5065512 sold together for £713,250 (estimated £240,000 – £360,000), equivalent to 1.1 million dollars including fees.
The following month in Amsterdam, 1965/1-∞, detail 2890944 – 2910059 from the Peter Stuyvesant collection fetched €260,000 ($354,000), five times its low estimate, and then on 14 October 2010 a white numbered tryptich fetched £680,000 excluding fees (more than $1m) at Christie’s in London.

As well as the numbered Details, some photographs are occasionally (rarely) offered at auctions. Their radicalism matches that of his painted works. Each self-portrait taken over the years has the same pallid light, the same neutral expression, the same white shirt and the same white background, with his hair gradually getting whiter over time. The face of Roman Opalka crosses time as much as time crosses his face. The price of these photos, in black and white, progressed from $4,000 to $12,000 between the beginning and the end of the decade.
In France, an exhibition entitled Le vertige de l’infini is currently allowing visitors to discover the different facets of this extreme artistic adventure (Chapelle de la Visitation in Thonon, from 2 July to 2 October 2011).