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Roman Opałka: The count to infinity
by Marta Pienkosz

May 2023

The 1960s was a decade of immense change and upheaval in society, politics, and culture. This same spirit of rebellion and transformation was mirrored in the art world, where artists began to question the established norms and ideas that had long dominated the art scene. One of the most significant developments during this time was the rise of conceptual art, which prioritized the importance of ideas and concepts over traditional artistic techniques and aesthetics. This approach to art aimed to dissolve the boundaries between art and everyday life, prompting viewers to contemplate the essence of art and its relationship with the world around us. Roman Opałka, a leading figure in the conceptual art movement, wholeheartedly embraced this philosophy. Opałka is best known for his lifelong project, which sought to record the passing of time by painting consecutive numbers on canvas. He began this project in 1965 and continued until his death in 2011. This essay delves into the work of Roman Opałka, examining how his lifelong project embodies the principles of conceptual art and other art movements that emerged in the 1960s. Through a close analysis of Opałka's most renowned work, OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞, this essay highlights the unique ways in which Opałka invites viewers to engage with the notion of time in a new and profound way, encouraging a deeper contemplation of its complexities and implications.

Roman Opałka's childhood is one that reflects the turbulent reality of mid-20th century Europe. He was born in France to Polish parents but returned to Poland just four years before the outbreak of World War II. During the war, his family was deported to a work camp in Bamberg in Upper Franconia, which is where they remained until the war’s end (Rider, 2016, p. 829). It was in his homeland that Opałka began his artistic journey, first enrolling in the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź in 1949 and then studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw (1950-1956). By the 1960s, Opałka's interests had turned to non-figurative painting, influenced by the Neo-Constructivist movement. During this time, he explored how to convey duration in pictorial form, starting with his "Chronomes" series that involved simple repeated paint strokes regularly spaced on a light-shaded ground to create a non-rational pattern (Rider, 2016, p. 824). However, he soon realized that these paintings did not visually convey temporality. In 1965, he had a breakthrough and decided to visualize the continuum of time through counting to infinity. This led to his lifetime project, OPALKA 1965/1 - ∞, which features a sequence of numbers from 1 to 5607249, spanning across the planes of 233 identically sized paintings— Details. Each painting measures approximately 196 by 135 cm and is meticulously covered, from top left to bottom right, with carefully painted numbers in ascending order towards infinity (Rider, 2016, p. 828).

Figure 1. Opałka 1965/1-∞; Détail 1,987,108 - 2,010,495 by Roman Opałka (n.d.)

Opałka's artistic endeavor was a profound exploration into the very essence of time. He did not simply seek to tell time, as machines like clocks do, but instead sought to visually illustrate it (De Jongh, 2010, p.92). Through his meticulous counting process that extended endlessly towards infinity, and with the gradual expansion of his collection of fully inscribed canvases, he was able to accurately represent the passage of time. In essence, his art was not about visual aesthetics, but rather about the conceptual representation of time as a dynamic and expanding entity as opposed to the finite and measurable. It is this very concept that places his work firmly within the realm of conceptual art.

Opałka's early canvases are distinguished by his use of white oil paint on a dark, almost black background. His minimalist approach is evident in the simple repetitive composition, which focuses only on essential elements— numbers. Although he aimed for consistency throughout his work, slight variations in paint application after each brush reload, and subtle misalignment of the numbers added visual interest and rhythmic modifications to the otherwise carefully regulated conformity of the work (Rider, 2016, p. 828). These small inconsistencies were seen by Opałka as reflections of the psychodrama of his ongoing work— “a recording instrument for the biorhythm of his life” (Rider, 2016, p. 822). In other words, Opałka embraced the tiny inconsistencies that emerged during the painting process as meaningful reflections of his own internal struggles, emotions, and experiences. These small deviations added a level of depth and complexity to his work, making each seemingly impersonal painting reflective of his ongoing psychological and emotional state.

Figure 2. "Roman Opałka’s work", a Photograph by Sławomir Boss (n.d.)

Worth noting was the artist's deliberate decision to start his numerical sequence at 1, which reflected something substantial, in contrast to the void that is represented by 0 (Amarie, 2014, p.98). By beginning with 1, Opałka was able to create a painting that counted and captured the essence of time, with each subsequent number representing a multiplier of one and contributing to the linear expansion that he sought to convey. Opalka wanted his paintings to have a voice, to count, and to represent both the perceptible and imperceptible aspects of reality (Amarie, 2014, p.99).

In 1973, Opałka made a slight modification to his artistic process by introducing controlled variations. He began to fade the background of each successive Detail incrementally by 1%, until he reached a point where he was painting white numbers on a white surface. Opałka estimated that this would happen by the time he reached the age of 75, which was then the average life expectancy for men in Poland (De Jongh, 2010, p.93). This decision can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, the use of white can be seen as a liberation from his own existence. As he approached his elderly years, Opałka may have been exploring the concept of nothingness. It is reflective in his gradual fading of the figure—numbers, denoting the biorhythm of his life—into a white void of the ground. The white could thus represent the slow disappearance of his own physical existence. On the other hand, Opałka described the gradual shift to white as well-earned, as if he deserved a certain variation after dedicating so many years to his craft. The relationship between "weissheit" (whiteness) and "weisheit" (wisdom) is not just a symbolic one but also reflective linguistically (De Jongh, 2010, p.93). Perhaps Opałka was drawn to whiteness as a means of delving deeper into existential questions related to the fleeting nature of time and its connection to mortality. The symbolism of a union between figure and ground in his art may thus reflect his contemplation of the transience of life.

Figure 3. "Roman Opałka in his studio, Bazérac,", a Photograph by GlobalArtAffairs Foundation (2010)

Alongside the painted numbers, Opałka documented his practice by spelling out the counting process in his native language, Polish, which further embodies the concepts and ideas of conceptual art. It is noteworthy that, unlike in typical recordings where modifications can be made for clarity, Opałka was unable to go back and re-record or spell out numbers after they were drawn. As a result, when he lost the tape containing the recording of the number 1,000,000, he was unable to address the situation (De Jongh, 2010, p.98).  Even over the slightest period of time, his voice changed, and revisiting past recordings would have been illogical given the unidirectional flow of time. Similarly, just as the counting process progressed in one direction, so in Opałka's audio recordings time was captured in a linear fashion— “With my work it is something like a river, but the river has only one direction” (De Jongh, 2010, p.98).

In addition to meticulously counting and documenting his artistic output, Opałka also captured the passage of time through a unique form of self-portrait photography. In each photo, he is seen dressed in a pristine white uniform, standing in front of one of his completed canvases. The lighting and shade remain consistent throughout each photograph, capturing his constant, disillusioned stare. As a result, the only variable that becomes visible over time is his aging, evident through the wrinkles on his face and the whitening of his hair. What's intriguing is how the whitening of Opałka's hair as he ages harmonizes with the gradual fading of the canvas background. This may further symbolize the union of the figure, here not just the numbers, but also the artist himself, with the void of the ground. His work thus captures the linear nature of time in a multidimensional way, not only on the surface of the canvas but also through his recordings and photographs. Through his experimental and innovative exploration of time, Opałka's work represents a striking example of conceptual art that aligns perfectly with the 1960s artistic movement's goal of challenging traditional norms and embracing new forms of expression.

Figure 4. "OPALKA 1965 / 1 - ∞" by Roman Opałka (2008)

While on the surface, Opałka's art may seem to lack any explicit reference to the major political transformations he lived through, a deeper examination of his work reveals its profound connection to the historical circumstances that affected all Poles. His art deals with difficult topics such as death, disappearance, sacrifice, and the irreversibility of time, which reflect the horrors of World War II and the years of Soviet Communism that Poland endured. Opałka's most significant contribution to the art world is his act of personal sacrifice. He dedicated 45 years of his life to completing a single project, which was not merely to make a statement but to sustain and cultivate a state of being for as long as possible (Rider, 2016, p. 832). The concept of his work existed from the moment he painted the first number, the "1." However, Opałka was convinced that in order to transform his idea into a work of art, he had to make a lifelong sacrifice. As he famously stated, "In order for it to be a work, I had to make this sacrifice, otherwise it would only have had a logical basis but would not be a work. My work simply contains all aspects of existence” (De Jongh, 2010, p.100). The inevitability of death thus had a fundamentally particular status that shaped both his life and his art. Interestingly, Opałka's work did not conform to either the established paradigm of studied anonymity, as exemplified by minimalists such as Sol LeWitt, or to the art that emphasized a self-conscious politicization of personal identity (Rider, 2016, p. 829). Instead, the project seemed intrinsically imbalanced. On one hand, it was inseparable from the artist's life and reflective of his emotional state, while beyond the surface, it was highly politically motivated. However, on the other hand, it remained extremely impersonal and somewhat inexpressive, as it used the most universally common system of counting. It’s as though the intersection of the subjective and the objective compromised the conceptual integrity of each other, leaving the projects in a puzzling state.

In essence, Opałka's art can also be viewed as an act of resistance against the prevailing political ideology. By dedicating himself to an art project that was nonsensical and meaningless, he challenged the notion of labor, which was so central to the Marxist worldview (De Jongh, 2010, p.98). In this way, his work can be viewed as a powerful act of opposition towards the oppressive regime, as it demonstrated his refusal to conform to the societal norms that demanded individuals to be productive and contribute to the collective of the society. The extreme rigor of Opałka's proposal was a response to the cruelty of the contingencies that history imposed on him, reflecting the social context of Poland in the 1960s (Rider, 2016, p. 829). In a world where political oppression and economic deprivation were the norm, Opałka's dedication to his artistic practice was a form of protest. Thus, Opałka's art is not only a remarkable reflection of the historical circumstances and social commentary of his time, but also represents a powerful form of artistic and political resistance. Similarly to the 1960s artists who critiqued the commercialization of popular culture through Pop-Art or promoted African American cultural identity and political activism through the Black Arts Movement, Opałka's art engages with and critiques the reality of post-war Communist Poland.

Roman Opałka was a remarkable artist whose contribution to the world of art cannot be understated. By embodying the principles of conceptual art, Opałka's work offers a unique representation of the overwhelmingly abstract concept of passage of time, which remains relevant and insightful to this day. The innovative nature of his work is highlighted by his multidimensional approach, which incorporates canvases, audio recordings, and photographs, all of which reflect the experimental approach artists were embracing in the 1960s. Furthermore, Opałka's art can be viewed through the prism of the social system of postwar Poland, offering an explicit commentary on the cultural and political realities of that era. His art thus serves as a testament to the transformative power of art, providing a platform for critical reflection on societal issues. Roman Opałka's work remains not only a vital influence on contemporary art, encouraging  artists to explore the boundaries of creativity and comment on the world around them, but also offers a fascinating window to contemplate one's own existence. Project OPALKA 1965/1 - ∞ invites viewers to contemplate the fleeting nature of time in a subtle yet undoubtedly powerful manner, offering not only artistic inspiration but also profound insights.


Amarie, O. (2014) 'Georges Perec and Roman Opalka: From the final gaze to the defeat of death', Cincinnati Romance Review, 38, pp. 95-113–113.

De Jongh, K. (2010) 'Time in the Art of Roman Opalka, Tatsuo Miyajima, and Rene Rietmeyer', KronoScope, 10(1/2), pp. 88–117.

Hartwig, N. (2010) 'Roman Opalka: Galerie Yvon Lambert', Modern Painters, 22(9), p. 73.

Panek, A. (2004) 'Roman Opalka: Ici et Maintenant / Roman Opalka: Numbering Infinity', Art-Press, (301), pp. 20–26.

Rider, A. (2016) 'The Longevity of Roman Opałka', Art History, 39(4), pp. 820–839.


Christie's. (2015). Roman Opałka, Opałka 1965/1-∞; Détail 1,987,108 - 2,010,495..) [Image]. In The art of timekeeping: an introduction to Roman Opalka and Darren Almond. Retrieved from

Desa. (n.d.). Roman Opałka – Malarz Czasu Nieodwracalnego [Photograph by Sławomir Boss of "Roman Opałka’s work"]. Retrieved from

Rider, A. (2016). The Longevity of Roman Opałka. Art History, 39(4), 820-839. Roman Opałka in his studio, Bazérac, 2010. [Image]. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London. Photo: © GlobalArtAffairs Foundation.

Roman Opałka. (2008). OPALKA 1965 / 1 - ∞ [Set of duotone prints]. Krakow Witkin Gallery.