Our days are numbered

An exhibition that is running at the moment of an artist’s death inevitably gains poignancy. However, the nature of the work of Roman Opalka gives particular resonance to a show that opened to coincide with the Venice Biennale and is now in its final weeks.

Opalka’s passing on August 6, aged 79, marks the final chapter in an oeuvre he once described as having “the appearance of artistic suicide”. By that, he meant not that his vision was cause for critical opprobrium but rather that it charted his own mortality.

The Polish-born artist was considered a leading figure in European conceptual art. He made work that graces the collections of top museums including the Guggenheim Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; he also took part in Documenta, the five-yearly contemporary art show in Kassel, Germany, and the biennials in São Paulo and Venice.

From 1977, Opalka was based in France, first in Paris and then at what he described as the “studio of his dreams” in the Loire Valley. More recently, he and his wife Marie-Madeleine Gazeau enjoyed a second home in Venice, where they developed a close rapport with the city’s leading contemporary dealer, Michela Rizzo. There could be no more suitable setting for his swansong than her gallery, the intimate yet airy rooms of which are modelled out of the classic proportions of a Renaissance palace.

Part of a generation who leapt to Rauschenberg’s challenge to make work “in the gap between art and life”, Opalka eschewed the gory performances, shocking happenings and found-object installations of his peers. Instead, he stayed true to painting, considered moribund by many 1960s artists, and performed a dance with death on the canvas itself.

Detail of one of Opalka's canvases

Opalka’s idea, which came to him in 1965, saw him devote himself to covering identically sized canvases in consecutive numbers, starting from one. Each canvas was entitled “OPALKA 1965/1- Détail ...” followed by the first and last numbers transcribed upon it. At first he painted in white on black, then shifted the ground to grey. From 1972, he added one per cent of white to the background of every new canvas. He also started to record his voice uttering each number as he painted it and to photograph himself every time he finished a canvas. By the time of his death, he was painting white numbers on a shade he christened “blanc mérité” – well-earned white. The numbers, meanwhile, had just surpassed 5.5m.

The remarkable formal simplicity of the resulting oeuvre makes this exhibition required viewing for a generation raised on the concept-lite art pioneered by the likes of Damien Hirst. In comparison with Opalka’s unflinching rigour, the pickled creatures that are Hirst’s response to the decay of the flesh look like banal squeals of outrage.

Opalka was lucky to come from an era where irony was not yet common currency. The solemnity of his encounter with corporeal frailty – he once described his art as “a struggle with the body” – is eloquently expressed here in eight canvases, which begin when his numbers reached 800,000 and finish with his last completed work.

As Opalka’s voice reverberates through the galleries, intoning the long numerals in Polish, the paintings vibrate with hypnotic tonal tension. The numbers possess the serene, illegible symmetry of a single word repeated in an incomprehensible script. On earlier canvases, where the contrast between white and grey is more pronounced, this could be the work of the Zero group. Indeed, before discovering his unique methodology, Opalka was aligned with this 1950s European movement of abstractionists, who sought to express metaphysical truths through the repetition of mute yet poetic motifs. The increasingly subtle fluctuations in hue recall the white-on-white works by minimalist Robert Ryman.

Like Ryman, Opalka was making a comment on the act of painting. “I have abandoned the artifices of material, colour and gesture to conserve ... only the essence of painting, that is presence and time,” he wrote. Yet, as with the Zero group, his art also exerts profound emotional power. As you draw near and the tiny numerals resolve into focus, it is impossible not to be moved by their merciless journey towards the finite end. Mapping the artist’s face from the taut, handsome confidence of his middle years to his final incarnation as a hood-eyed old man, all colour leached from his crumpled features, the display of photographs serves to underline the pitiless nature of the ageing process.

Opalka stated that: “Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance; we are at the same time alive and in the face of death – that is the mystery of all living beings. The consciousness of this inevitable disappearance broadens our experiences without diminishing our joy.”

Yet the apparent froideur of his practice has seen him bracketed with conceptual artists such as Daniel Buren, who makes work only from stripes, and On Kawara, who paints each canvas with no more than the date on which he makes it. In reality, Opalka is an artist who bridges the gap between postwar expressionism and the cool, conceptual games that succeeded it. Like those cerebral talents, Opalka knew that revelation could emerge from the numb beauty of ritual as well as the chaos of the spontaneous gesture. Yet while the conceptualists were performing their analytical dissections of space and time, Opalka was composing his own requiem on canvas.

‘Roman Opalka: The Time of Painting’, Galleria Michela Rizzo, Venice, until October 8; www.galleriamichelarizzo.net

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