A close up of one of the Details, Roman Opalka

From The Smart Set:

In 1965, while waiting in a cafe, Roman Opalka decided to paint time. He didn’t paint the counters of time — clocks and watches and calendars and such. He didn’t paint people waiting for the bus or racing to the finish line. Roman Opalka painted time itself. He called this project, his life’s work, “OPALKA 1965 / 1 — ∞.” The title might be read as this: (Roman) Opalka (the artist begins in) 1965 (painting numbers from) one to infinity.

Having decided to paint time, the French-Polish conceptual artist went to his Warsaw studio and prepared a canvas. He sat before it. His hand trembled. He knew that once he started this immense project, he could never go back. Armed with a size 0 brush, and still shaking, Opalka painted in white a little “1” on the upper left-hand corner of a gray canvas. He then made his way horizontally across the canvas, number by number—2…3…4…5 — until he had a row of numbers, then two rows of numbers, then three. When Opalka ran out of room, when the last number was painted in the bottom right-hand corner, he stopped. Later, the artist made another painting, and another, each one picking up numerically where the last painting left off. He called the paintings “Details.” The canvas was always the same size: 196 centimeters by 135 centimeters. The numbers were always painted in white. When Opalka made a Detail, he recorded himself speaking the numbers as he painted. When a painting session was finished, Opalka would take a photograph of his face in front of his work, the numbers stopping when he did. Opalka devoted himself to this project alone, painting time. “All my work is a single thing,” he once wrote, “the description from number one to infinity.”

There is obsession in the Details. Opalka painted millions of numbers for more than 45 years, stroke by stroke, and took hundreds of self-portraits — same lighting, same position, same purpose. You would think that this formality would make Opalka’s paintings uniform, cold. But a single Detail is dizzying to behold. At first glance you can’t really see that you are looking at numbers. Because Opalka was committed to the hand-painted gesture, the digits are all uneven, both in size and weight. Before you can get a good look at the content, Opalka’s paintings feel as though they are moving around as the numbers get heavier and lighter, like the disappearing cloud of dust that follows the Roadrunner as he zips offscreen.

Roman Opalka painting one of his first Details

“Running the Numbers”, Stefany Anne Golberg, The Smart Set