Andrea Neustein revisits Roman Opalka’s gray time-pieces and the alternating tones of futility and humor that give them form. PASSAGES, comprised of four such works, is up now through October 9 at Yvon Lambert Gallery.
Roman Opalka’s grayscale paintings were the first conceptual art works that I could engage without explanation. I was a child at the 1995 Venice Biennale, the year Opalka’s paintings were mounted in the Polish Pavilion. Like all of Opalka’s exhibited work, these were from the OPALKA 1965-∞ series, comprised of daily sound recordings, photo self-portraits, and a sequence of canvases primed in black or gray and covered in tiny rows of painted numbers, starting in 1965 with the number one. From a distance, his surfaces appeared monochromatic; as I approached, snowdrift gradients began to appear. Up close, the effect was impressionistic, or more accurately pointillist—a crowded collection of methodical, nearly identical brushstrokes. I could see that for each number, Opalka renewed the paint on his brush and then allowed it to be exhausted, so the ends of some numbers were barely visible. Until that point, I had relied on explanations from others to understand artwork, but even as a child, Opalka’s clarity of purpose spoke to me directly.
Opalka is a super signature artist; his oeuvre can be best understood as a body of work. Each painting has a start and finish, but the work is emphatically sequential. Besides the obvious counting, Opalka adds one percent more white paint to each canvas. Yvon Lambert is currently showing four of Opalka’s very pale recent paintings, which are numbered in the 5 millions. Over a sound system, Opalka reads out the numbers in low, raspy Polish as he writes. Ostensibly, Opalka’s work represents the passage of time. So why choose acrylic paint, when pencil might be better suited for neatly writing numbers?
As Robert Pincus-Witten wrote in his 1972 essay for Artforum, ‘Ryman, Marden, Manzoni: Theory, Sensibility, Mediation,’ Robert “Ryman is interested in painting as theory and one is therefore tempted to say that he is not interested in painting at all.” Pincus-Witten argued that Ryman emphasized “intellective processes” rather than the act of painting. Like Ryman, Opalka does not explore paint as paint, instead letting the qualities of the medium dictate the stringent rules he sets for his practice. Yet the fourth dimension, time, that is the focus of Opalka’s work, lends the installation an underlying tremor of anguish, enlightenment, humor.
Opalka’s practice is rigidly linear; each painting starts on the upper left, and ends on the lower right. There can be no touching up. Yet the muscle of Opalka’s work lies in his ferocious editorial process. His artistic life is pared down to these paintings, these recordings, and a series of daily self-portraits, not on view at Yvon Lambert, NY, in which he is shot in the same white shirt in front of the same white background, at the moment when he has stopped painting for that day. The aesthetic modesty of Opalka’s work belies the epic ambition, the monumental heft, of his artistic project.
Roman Opalka, PASSAGES is running at Yvon Lambert through October 9.