Painter and etcher. Born on the 27th of August 1931 in Abbeville (France). Died in Rome on the 6th of August, 2011.
Opałka is one of Poland's the best known artists abroad; a painter and author of unusual "spatial arrangements," his works allow all visual elements to play an equal role.
Opałka is one of the best-known Polish artists outside Poland - a painter, the author of unusual "spatial arrangements". In these works, all the visual elements play an equal role (paintings, the artist's photographic portraits) together with the phonic (his voice counting the numbers that he paints on the canvas).
During the Second World War, Opałka was in Germany with his family. After the war, he returned to France, and in 1946 he was repatriated to Poland. He left the country again in 1977. He lives in France.
Between 1949-50, he studied at the State Higher School of Fine Arts in Łódź (currently the Fine Arts Academy) and after that, for six years, at the Warsaw Fine Arts Academy. Parallel to his studies, he also worked on drawing and realistic painting (which he continued until 1958). At the end of the ‘50s, he became interested in the painting of matter.
He moved to creating monochrome compositions, the creased texture of which was at once exquisite and vivid. At this time he also started creating abstract drawings - a form of colour studies, in which he applied monotype elements investigating the gradations of whitened colours. He was also making ink drawings, the surfaces of which he filled with combinations of geometrical figures and their derivatives: grills, rhomboid forms etc. The artist soon withdrew from experimenting with texture on a large scale, but at first, it did dominate his work, resulting in a cycle that produced a very vivid rhythm ("Chronomes", (1961-63); clear grey and black shades, "Phonemats", (1963-64)).
Occasionally, the artist worked on paintings marked by letters of the Greek alphabet, the surface of which was relief-modelled using a wide palette-knife ("Lambda", "Kappa", "Chi" etc.). Rigorous horizontal divisions also determined Opałka's spatial constructions (the cycle "Hovercrafts" - using canvas, batten and down, (1963-64); "Integrations" - a wooden composition, (1964-66)), as well as highly-valued graphic works that won numerous prizes ("Description of the World", (1968-70)).
The artist continued his search for a language of his own, gathering experiences and experimenting. This is proved by the fact that his first individual exhibition, in 1966, took place ten years after his graduation. However, his period of creative maturity was to arrive even later, at the beginning of the next decade. It was then that the principle of harmony and permanent systematisation - that he had begun in 1965 - started to govern Opałka's art, taking the form of the "concept of progressive counting". Since then, the artist has been producing only drawings (Details, Postcards from Travel) and paintings (Counted Paintings) filled with a linear record of moments passing in time. The Note is made using white dye against a grey background, with each one being 1% paler than the preceding one (the last record is supposed to be made using white on white).
At this time, Opałka started recording himself on tape, registering each number, and later, he also began to photograph his own face regularly while painting. During an exhibition, all these elements make up a kind of environment. The reception of these types of action (with conceptualistic roots), to a considerable degree stimulates the numerous statements made by the author himself, who emphasises that it is his goal to identify art with life. The determination with which Opałka stands by this idea has met with admiration as well as negation. It suffices to recall the extreme opinions expressed by Polish critics. Bożena Kowalska regards Opałka as an exceptional personality and continues to be an admirer of his art, while Andrzej Osęka wrote a few years ago that a telephone directory, which is also filled with numbers, is more interesting than the artist's paintings. Without doubt, though, it is precisely the individualistic nature of his work, enhanced by the use of his own image and voice changing over time, raised to the ranks of a universal message about the nature of a contemporary memento mori, that has secured international acclaim for the author (as well as commercial success - the painter has already sold paintings he has not yet created).
Opałka has been awarded numerous international prizes. The first were for his graphic works from the above mentioned cycle "Description of the World" (Grand Prix at the 7th International Graphic Biennale in Bradford for the opening etching of the series - "Adam and Eve" in 1968; he also received the Grand Prix at the 3rd International Graphic Biennale in Cracow in 1969). In 1972, during the London exhibition at the William Weston Gallery, he definitively separated himself from his previous work. To demonstrate this, he spread his drawings on the floor and put on the wall one of the "Counted Paintings" - as the only work of importance. With this gesture, he moved on to the next phase of his work that continues to this day. The painter was also honoured with the C. K. Norwid Artistic Critic Award (1970). He took part in the Biennale in Sao Paulo (1969 and 1977) and the Documenta in Kassel (1977), and he represented Poland during the Biennale in Venice (1995).
Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Art History Institute of the Catholic Lublin University, Faculty of the Theory of Art and History of Artistic Doctrines, January 2003.
On the 9th of August, 2011, The New York Times published a tribute to the artist, citing that
Though his artistic quest might have seemed bloodless and abstract, Mr. Opalka described it, passionately, as a grand metaphor for human existence. “Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance,” he wrote in an essay in 1987. “We are at the same time alive and in the face of death — that is the mystery of all living beings.”
See the full text of the article from The New York Times: Roman Opalka, an Artist of Numbers, Is Dead at 79