Roman Opalka: Polish-French conceptual artist who explored the passing of time in an extraordinary series of canvases

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The Independent Online

The Polish-French conceptual artist Roman Opalka was best-known for his attempt to reflect and define the progression of time through his series of acrylic paintings of numerals titled Opalka: 1965/1-oo (one to infinity).

It was, he said, his way of painting time itself. Describing the works as "a march towards infinity", he began by painting the figure 1 in the top-left corner of a canvas, slightly bigger than four-by-six foot, in 1965, and continued, until his death, painting rows of consecutive numbers, completing five canvases of exactly the same size every year.

He deliberately used increasingly lighter paint against increasingly light backgrounds, which he said also reflected the progression of time. Whereas his initial backgrounds had been black, his later works had become barely visible, white on almost-white – blanc merité, or well-earned white, he called it. Each canvas, or "detail" as he described them, picked up with the figure one higher than the last on the bottom-right corner of his previous canvas.

His first-ever painting in the series is in the Modern Art Museum in Lodz, Poland. Last year, Christie's sold three of his "details" as a single lot which went for $1.3m.

According to the Italian writer Marco Pierini: "when the last of the painted numbers will not be followed by another one and the counting will be interrupted, this will leave the work not unfinished, but perfect."

In 2000 Lorand Hegyi, the Hungarian-born art historian, told the magazine Art News: "He dips the brush in the paint and paints as long as the colour remains. The numbers have a rhythm that reflects the rhythm of the hand. It is repetitive, but metaphorical as well. It is about dualism – good/bad, dark/light, man/God. He eliminates the differences. There is a mystical, spiritual aspect to his work that comes from his Polish-Slavic culture."

Opalka had painted more than five million digits – each made up of an increasing number of digits – by the time he died in a hospital in Italy, three weeks short of his 80th birthday, after falling ill on holiday. In other words, the last number he painted, said to be five million-something, had seven digits starting with a 5. "I know I'll never arrive at the perfect white on white," he once said, "for there's always a memory of the origin, of this black background. Only death can achieve my work."

To bolster his theme of defining the progression of time, he spoke each number, in Polish, into a tape recorder while he painted and, after each session, took a passport-style photographic portrait of himself, always wearing an open-neck white shirt and always expressionless. "All my work is a single thing," he said. "A single thing, a single life." On another occasion, he wrote: "Time as we live it and 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 problem is that we are, and are about not to be."

Opalka's works are on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Hamburg's Kunsthalle. He was exhibited at the Sao Paolo Biennial in 1987 and at the Venice Biennale in 1995 and 2003. He has had solo exhibitions in New York at both the Yvon Lambert gallery and the John Weber gallery. Earlier this year, his works formed part of the show "Studies for an Art Exhibition" at the David Roberts Art Foundation in London.

His first-ever painting in the 1965/1-oo series, starting with the digit 1, is in the Modern Art Museum in Lodz, Poland.

Such prices show that the whole of each Opalka canvas represent far more than the sum of cold, motionless digits. At first look, you may not even tell you are looking at rows of numbers. The digits are not of uniform size, thickness or lightness and seem to do a dizzying dance across the tableau.

Roman Opalka was born in 1931 in Hocquincourt, in northern France's Picardy region, to Polish parents who returned to Poland when he was four. After the Nazi invasion, the family was deported to Germany, where they remained until the end of the war and then returned to Poland. Opalka studied at the School of Art and Design in Lodz and later got a degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.

He painted his first "detail" of numerals in 1965 and in 1970 gave up all other art work to concentrate on the project and the "march towards infinity." Recalling the first tableau he started in 1965, he once recalled: "my hand trembled before the hugeness of the task, this little 1, this radical commitment to the first instant of irreversible time. It was the most courageous decision of my life."

Opalka settled in France in 1977. He spent his time between homes in Venice and in Teillé, a commune in north-western France. France appointed him Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2009. He is survived by his wife, Marie-Madeleine.

Roman Opalka, artist: born Hocquincourt, France 27 August 1931; married 1950 Alina Piekarczyk (marriage dissolved), 1976 Marie-Madeleine Gazeau; died Chieti, Italy 6 August 2011.