Painting (by) numbers

Jason Kottke shares with us the work of Roman Opalka, evidently a man of focus and determination.

Painting infinity
In 1965, French-born Polish painter Roman Opalka began work on his series of paintings OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞. Starting in the top-left corner of a canvas, he painted the number “1”, then “2”, then “3”, and so on, continuing until the canvas was full of consecutive whole numbers. At the top of the next canvas, he picked up where he’d left off, and then just kept going from canvas to canvas. By 1970, Opalka abandoned working on anything else and devoted himself solely to filling canvases with numbers.

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Roman Opalka’s numerical destiny
He understood his work as the culmination of a lifetime of painting when he famously proclaimed. “It’s important that my last Detail should not be finished by me, but my life.”

He pursued this culmination on a daily basis, eight hours a day, until the process of painting led him to “white/white” — that is, white numbers on a canvas with a background painted white, the same as the numbers. After three years (1968, possibly 1969), Opalka began to add 1% white pigment to the black background. Gradually, over time, as more paintings were painted, the black surface would become gray. As he continued to count and to paint five, six, and seven digit numbers, he discreetly added 1% white to each canvas, thus making the surfaces appear increasingly lighter. In the late 1970s he declared that the background of his canvases would eventually appear white, the same white used to paint the numerals that would finally dissolve into the surface, embody the surface. Ultimately, there would be no distinction between the white numerals and the white surface; they would culminate as a form of blankness, possibly transcendent, as the numerals grew invisible within the prospect of infinity, the Samadhi or highest level of meditation.

Not to be confused with:

From Warhol to minimalism: how painting by numbers revolutionised art
It took a genius to see the genius of Dan Robbins, the inventor of painting-by-numbers who has died aged 93. For art critics, painting-by-numbers was, and is, a byword for robotic repetition and unoriginality – and that was exactly what Andy Warhol adored about it. In 1962, when he was searching for a mechanical artistic process, he painted a series of homages to Robbins. His Do it Yourself paintings mimic painting-by-numbers landscapes, with blocky areas of flat colour guided by a grid of numbers visible through the paint.