Friday, December 16, 2011

Quiet Days at La Tourette

What seems to be at issue in the meeting between Alan Charlton and Le Corbusier within the Cistercian monastic context of La Tourette is a latent or denied religious tendency or affinity within the work of the painter and architect.

Certainly, there is a shared austerity, a denial of any frivolity of ornament, a gravitas that accumulates from a poverty of intention. Both Charlton and the Cistercians practice obedience to a rule.

The issue is most clearly raised in a group of shaped canvases that have a removal from each corner. At La Tourette, they inevitably read as crosses. In a small chapel, a vertical and a horizontal painting, on opposite walls, may be brought together mentally to form another cross.

But vertical and horizontal are two spatial co-ordinates. In another setting, they might read as portrait and landscape. Subtraction is as permissible as addition, within the logic of Charlton’s work.

This setting up of its own premise, and following through of its possibilities, is surely a definitive mark of the secular. Before any contextualization, the paintings demand to be read in their own terms. Any compatibility with monasticism will have to be at another level than the iconographic.

What their too brief installation in Le Corbusier’s monastery reveals is a pervasive desire in Alan Charlton’s paintings: they are receptive to light; they reach up, stretch out, cherish their own surfaces. They propose and maintain one colour at a time.

Although the formal and conceptual element in Charlton’s work is strong, these paintings are paintings.

Alan Charlton's work was shown at La Tourette
from September to November 2011.

See "La Tourette/Modulations" published by
Bernard Chauveau, Paris, 2011.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Portrait Of Roman Opalka

In a well-known tale by Oscar Wilde, a playboy and aesthete, 
Dorian Gray, stays forever young and handsome. Meanwhile, 
a portrait of Gray, hidden from public view, changes over time, 
depicting the slow corruption of the dandy’s soul.

Wilde’s story works by reversing a basic assumption of 
the spiritual life, that while the body is subject to decay, 
the spirit should remain pure and unchanging, outside 
the ravages of time.

The same stakes may be raised by the self-portrait 
photographs Roman Opalka took throughout his great 
project, as accompaniments to the ‘detail’ paintings. 
While the artist is seen to age, the work progresses patiently, 
apart from personal vicissitude, in an uncorrupted realm 
of numbers. 

We are given no indication, in either the paintings or 
the photographs, of the artist’s state of mind or spirit. 
But this silence resounds ! It is towards, but also against, 
mortality that the artist progresses. In carrying out his 
self-appointed task, he becomes Roman Opalka, 
the artist we recognise as the author of 1-∞, 
the keeper of his promise, one indifferent to events.    

The photographs recognise change but are a record 
of constancy.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Alan Charlton with Le Corbusier

Alan Charlton at Le Corbusier's
Couvent de La Tourette

10th September to 6th November 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

from Jim Hamlyn

Dear Tom and Alistair,

The following are some thoughts that have been rattling
and tapping under the bonnet as I've been trundling along

Familiar as I am with many of the artists you mention and
much as I have enjoyed their work over the years, I have
often found myself somewhat puzzled whilst reading your
blog. I couldn't agree more that the emphasis placed upon
such notions as 'development' and 'progress' fail to encompass
the practices of a significant portion of profoundly interesting
work made in recent decades. Indeed I'm much more comfortable
thinking of art as something that changes or perhaps even
evolves but this is where the puzzlement begins because
if some artists choose to constrain or limit the evolution
of their work - to stop changing it - then where does this
leave them/us and what insights are likely to be gained by
doing so ?

Although by no means a universal truth, there does seem to be
a common experience encountered by many artists in their early
career where they happen upon a discovery or shift in perspective
that transforms their outlook on life and the work they make.
Such transformations are often characterised by the development
of a new 'vision' that reveals previously unforeseen possibilities.
I remember during a talk at Inverleith House Carl Andre spoke
of how this happened for him via an unintendedly insightful
comment made by Frank Stella about one of Andre's works that
threw him into an utterly new conception of the potential of sculpture.
Since that time Andre has explored innumerable ways to reform
this single foundational insight and the differences, whilst often
relatively subtle, are at once inventive, playful and reiterative of
this profound realisation, that sculpture is not an addition but rather
a subtraction from space.

Genuine discoveries would appear to be as rare in art practice as
in any other area of human dealing so perhaps it is only natural
that artists should wish to plumb their discoveries as fully as possible
- whether it takes just a day or a whole lifetime. This might also
explain why artists are often disinclined to start afresh amongst
unfamiliar territory where failure and disappointment is necessarily
far more common than discovery.

However, I realise that art need not always be a quest in search of
discovery. Some artists might choose to repeat an aspect of the
tradition in a devotional act not dissimilar to that described in the
astonishing scene in Tarkovski's "Sacrifice" that you mentioned
recently. Similarly they might be gripped by 'Functionslust': a
German term that describes the pleasure of doing something for its
own sake as opposed to the pleasure of producing an effect or
generating an object of value. The emphasis being entirely focussed
on the process rather than the product - the journey along the road
as opposed to the destination. However, whilst I can very much
appreciate how some artists might be drawn into a deep relationship
with certain practices and processes, I'm less convinced (or perhaps
'less certain' would be a better way to put it) about the potential for
insight offered by the products of their activity. And here we come
back to the issue of insight which, as it turns out, is little different from
discovery really.

But if we dispense with development, progress, discovery and now
insight what are we actually left with ?



Dear Jim,

It's not our purpose in The Single Road to defend, let alone
recommend, the artists involved. They represent a significant
aspect of practice which is less known than it used to be, and
less understood. We really set up the blog to draw attention to
this way of working and to try to understand it ourselves, in part
from the kind of perplexity you mention.

Your point about art making as pushing through to 'a discovery
or shift in perspective' is one that is dear to me too. Unless some
new insight is to be had from art, why would anyone look at it ?
Without a sense of adventure and discovery, why would anyone
make it ?

But I wonder if we are right to insist too dogmatically on discovery
and insight. Perhaps there are other interests and pleasures to be
had.  I do find that I am glad to hear, from time to time, that On
Kawara is still alive. It seems a beautiful thing now, that Opalka
continued his life's project right to the end. No doubt I would be
mildly distressed, if Alan Charlton started to make blue paintings.

Consistency may be one critique of change, commitment of a wider
lack of commitment. Daniel Buren's single strategy seemed to work
as a critical intervention into institutions and expectations, at least for
a time. Reinhardt's black paintings remain as hermetically sealed as
they were 50 years ago, in some ways more so.  Here the discoveries
are to be made around the art, as it were, rather than within it.

There is a story that Wittgenstein didn't mind what he had for dinner
- as long as it was the same every day ! This is unusual, but many
people enjoy the same breakfast every morning, wearing the same
clothes, coming home to the same person. Why should such
continuities and recognitions be excluded from art ?

In fact, the everyday and its improvement has become a strong theme
in recent art. Concern is less with the exceptional circumstance
(insight and discovery) than with the ordinary, the customary.
That is where anyone lives, most of the time.  Opalka and the others
have a relevance here as artists who have chosen a set of
parameters, an everyday circumstance, a working life.

With best wishes,


Monday, September 19, 2011


Karin Sander: Chicken's Egg, Polished, Raw, 1994

Perhaps the practice of artists whose work constantly changes
may turn out to be a non-practice, a patient waiting for the next
idea to arrive. Perhaps such artists need to return, again and again,
to the waiting state, to a kind of hovering or abstention from
thought and activity, in a practice of availability.

If that is the case, then they may not be so far from artists of
the single road as may appear. Emptiness, or inactivity, will
be their continuity. Their loyalty to a silence between works
may be as constant as the commitment to a single project.

Both sets of artists will be opposed to development, to a
recognition of work and self retrieved through narrative.

Perhaps there are artists whose practice is to wait without
expectation. Perhaps their commitment is as much to
the interval between works as to the works. But this is
mere speculation...

Karin Sander: 1:10 - 3D body scan figures of actual
persons, on a scale of 1:10.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

a different duration

Daniel Buren, Les couleurs: sculptures, 1977,
white and green, on the main pole of the Bazar
de l'Hotel de Ville.

"Holding onto a point means exposing the individual
animal that one is to becoming the subject of the
consequences of this point. It means incorporating
oneself into the construction of these consequences,
into the subjective body that they gradually constitute
in our world. In this way, we construct, in the
temporality of opinion, a different duration, distinct
from that which we have been driven into by
the symbolization of the state."

"If there is not such a point, then the only liveable
(or survivable) outcome is the most abject
submission to reality. We find ourselves here in a
Lacanian dialectic, between the Real and reality.
If nothing punctures a hole in reality, if nothing is
an exception to it, if no point can be held on to for
its own sake whatever it costs, then there is only
the reality and submission to this reality, what
Lacan called 'the service of wealth'."

          - Alain Badiou, "The Meaning of Sarkozy"

Friday, September 9, 2011

Working in series

In his famous essay, ‘Three American Painters’ from 1965, Michael Fried notes that contemporary modernist painters often work in series, and he speculates as to why this might have become an appealing way of making art.

It provides a “context of mutual elucidation” for the individual paintings constituting the series, he explains. If a viewer sees a number of works “which represent essentially the same approach to the same formal issue”, then it makes the issue much easier to understand. But it also allows you to register the differences, bringing “out the particular expressive intonation of each.”

Frank Stella, installation at Leo Castelli Gallery, 1960

Frank Stella, installation at Leo Castelli Gallery, 1964

Kenneth Noland, installation at Andre Emmerich Gallery, 1967

Philip Fisher draws on this passage in his book Making and Effacing Art, in order to make an observation about the arbitrariness of museum display. Emphasizing that an individual work of art always has the potential to be presented out of context in a modern gallery, he uses Fried’s remark to suggest that for many contemporary artists, it is the series that has become “the basic unit of work.”

“In the precise, dated series the painter rules out the surrounding chaos by supplying the context, the commentary of neighbors, for the no-longer-intelligible single work. He creates whole sections of history at once, not pictures for the whims of history to supply antecedents and descendants for. In viewing such a sequence a striking effect occurs. Once only one picture exists at any instant as a picture, the others are temporarily explication, frame, and criticism. The power of the series lies in the skill with which each picture can exchange roles; now a sensory experience, exhaustively commented on by the rest of the series; a moment from now, part of the explication for one of the other pictures. In the series we reach an authentic clarity of the part, the smallest detail of any structure comes in time to replicate the form of the whole: the series is not art, but a miniature art history.”

This comment is useful in highlighting the extraordinary care that many artists who have produced a life-long series of works have shown in regulating the terms of their reception. 

For instance Roman Opalka was exceptionally scrupulous in setting up an “optimum installation” for his paintings, or Details, as he calls them. Not merely satisfied with fashioning his oeuvre into one integrative, serial whole, he supplemented the displayed paintings with sound recordings, and with his photographs.

From 1994 onwards, he went even further, and began to experiment with modifying the architecture of the exhibition space itself, resulting in what he named Octagons. In his ideal installation, the octagon would be a cellular, freestanding structure that would be erected inside a museum. It would consist of seven walls, with the eighth being the point of entry, and would be used to display seven Details. The space would be lit from above and below, and, in one essay, he stated that in addition to a guard, only seven visitors should be allowed inside the octagon at any one time.

Roman Opalka's Octagon at Musée d'Art Moderne de Saint-Etienne, 2006

Ad Reinhard’s ‘outline for a book’ is arguably even more exacting than Opalka’s desire for a meditative Gesamtkunstwerk. He extends his desire to control the terms of his paintings’ reception by intervening directly in the discourse of art history. His plan was to write a comprehensive and definitive book on art that would provide the most sympathetic context possible for approaching his ‘black’ paintings.

(Click on image to view in full)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sculpting Time (Sperone Westwater, 2008)

In 2008, Steven Holmes from the Cartin Collection curated an exhibition at Sperone Westwater in New York titled 'Sculpting Time', featuring works by Josef Albers, Andrew Grassie, On Kawara, Giorgio Morandi and Roman Opalka.

In the accompanying catalogue Holmes raises a number of very thoughtful ideas that are close to our own interests. Here's an extract:

"Andrei Tarkovsky's film The Sacrifice begins with a single nine-and-a-half minute scene. In this long, continuous shot, a young boy, mute, helps his father plant a tree in a desolate landscape. While his father, Alexander, works, he tells his son the story of a monk who spent an entire lifetime beginning each day with a walk up the side of a mountain, to carry water to a dead tree. At the monk's death, the tree burst to life. The meaning of the story, as Alexander expresses to his silent son, is that it was not the water that brought the tree to life, but rather the faithful day-in, day-out ritual of bringing the water. The content of the bucket was not important; it was the act of blind devotion, the seemingly desolate and meaningless commitment to a practice, that saved the tree. For Tarkovsky, the artist must make work like the monk carried water - not hoping for meaning or redemption in any one painting, but rather trusting that through the day-in, day-out devotion of the studio, something else emerges that is greater than the sum of the parts."

Thursday, August 18, 2011


With his round wooden bar resting on his shoulder,
perhaps Andre Cadere is the lightest, the least burdened,
of the artists we are considering here.

The "Barre de Bois Ronde" is a long stick strung with
coloured wooden beads arranged in numerical order
but containing a deliberate error, one bead out of

Placed in an art context, the Barre starts an argument
with its surroundings, with the occasion, with an art of placing.
Carried around in the streets, it affirms art beyond its institutions.

Often a gadfly in the French art scene, turning up uninvited
at openings or leaving a Barre in another artist's installation,
Cadere made around 180 Barres in his short lifetime,
active from 1970-78.

If the artist is free from the tyranny of the market, from
the gallery system, from any location or context, from
the need for innovation, then the world is wide.

Unlike the work of Opalka, into which the artist's death
was inscribed from the beginning, for Cadere mortality
may have been just another circumstance to be greeted
with lyrical indifference.

Commitment here may be less to a work than a pose,
or a poise.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Roman Opalka dies

Roman Opalka died on Saturday 6 August, aged 79.

New York Times
The official Roman Opalka website
Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi
Axel Vervoordt Gallery blog - The gallery will host an exhibition of Opalka's work (8 September - 22 October 2011)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

André Cadere

Cadere, March 1972, Musée Rodin, Paris

Cadere, April 1973, Avenue des Gobelins, Paris

Cadere, September 1974, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Cadere, September 1974, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Cadere, 1974, Projekt '74, Cologne (with Daniel Buren)

Cadere, May 1975, Galerie Banco, Brescia

Cadere, December 1975, Café de l'Oasis, Kain, Belgium

Cadere, 1976, Café Florian, Venice

Cadere, 1977, Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Ghent

Cadere, June 1978, l'Hôpital International de l'Université de Paris

André Cadere died on 12 August 1978

Treading water

‘Charlton’s oeuvre … evidences a seemingly rigorous, apparently logical process for the theoretically endless manufacture of self-similar things (and things, moreover, whose lack of use-value and entertainment-value renders them socially suspect). His catalogue raisonné would reveal a remarkable consistent body of work – uncannily so, particularly to anyone accustomed to comfortably periodizing an artist’s career. Changes do arise, of course, and differences emerge throughout, but a sense of development as such is less apparent. Others have noted Charlton’s admiration for Samuel Beckett’s work, and it is not difficult to perceive in Charlton’s repetitive process a Beckettian aspect. Adorno, who in his Aesthetic Theory championed the author of Fin de partie, supplies us with an analysis that might aptly be applied to Charlton’s work. “Beckett,” he wrote, “indifferent to the ruling cliché of development, views his task as that of moving in an infinitely small space toward what is effectively a dimensionless point. The aesthetic principle of construction, as in the principle of Il faut continuer [among the last words of L’Innomable], goes beyond stasis; and it goes beyond the dynamic in that it is at the same time a principle of treading water, and, as such, a confession of the uselessness of the dynamic …” For Adorno, “treading water” is among the few ethical responses available to the artist who finds himself or herself to be of diminishing relevance (outside the institutional and academic artworld) in an efficiency-oriented consumer culture. Not only is “treading water” a metaphor for the artist’s own irrationally persistent desire, it is also an affirmation of persistence – surely the absurd persistence – of autonomous aesthetic production, even of poiesis in general, within such a culture.’

from an essay on Alan Charlton by Michael Steger, in Carl Andre, Alan Charlton, Niele Toroni, Exhibition Catalogue, CAN – Centre d’Art Neuchâtel (2001), pp. 51-52

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lynne Cooke on On Kawara

Lynne Cooke's essay on On Kawara from the DIA Art Foundation Website offers one of the clearest explications of the Date Paintings on the web.

Monday, August 1, 2011


from "Reinhardt Paints a Picture", Autointerview from Art News, March 1965

"Is it true that for twelve years, since the early fifties, you've painted only black paintings and that for five years, since the early sixties, you've made black paintings of only one size, square, five feet by five feet?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

from "A Conversation between Alan Charlton and Guido de Werd", in Alan Charlton, exhibition catalogue, Museum Kurhaus Kleve, 2008

The consistency of your work is incredible; especially because visual culture changes so rapidly. Your exhibitions in the 1970s do not look substantially different to your presentations today, the context, though, has changed. Do you feel that your radical approach is a form of resistance?

I made my first grey paintings in 1969, and by the early 70s I had chosen my path. The decisions I made would have been influenced by the culture of the day. Over time, the more things change around me, the more certain I become in following this path.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Trends in life expectancy at birth (years) for selected countries by sex, 1970–2009.
Sources: WHO Health for All Database and Human Mortality Database

The artists we are considering at this site all share an ambition to persist with a single project for the remainder of their working lives. Arguably this decision makes the day when they will die seem more important than it often is for other artists, simply because it is the only factor that legitimately can conclude their continuous work.

This is why Roman Opalka seems so central. No other artist has made art-making synonymous with their entire life to the degree that he appears to have achieved. For him it is as if living and breathing, painting and counting is one and the same activity.

As mentioned in previous entries on Opalka, the pathos of his ongoing work derives in large part from the fact that he has set off on a task (to paint every number from one to infinity) that could never be completed within a single lifespan.

The progression of numbers he inscribes on his canvases is symbolic of the passing of lived time, as he experiences it in his body. Sometimes in books he captions the photographs he takes of himself simply with the number that he has just reached, as though to say “this is the appearance of my face at the moment I passed the number x”. Here, the numbers function like an idiosyncratic timeline.



Opalka’s counting out of these abstract numbers could also be said to stand for the unremitting, infinitesimal movement of finite knowledge. His self-imposed task is to know and experience numbers one by one, by painting them out while also speaking them into a microphone. In his writings, he often refers to certain numbers he predicts he should be able to attain, so long as he is able to carry on working systematically and efficiently at rates he knows are achievable. We might say he has chosen to define his life almost entirely in terms of rational and steady progress. As such he allows his life and work to be audited as though it were as incremental as a savings account, or contributions to a pension plan.

By setting out on a task that could never be completed, Opalka is aware he can only sample a tiny fragment of what he foresees could potentially be known. Very large ‘milestone’ numbers, such as 88888888, have become emblematic for him of life experiences he knows he can never have. In other words, he will never see the day when he gets to photograph his face after having passed eighty-eight million, eight hundred and eighty-eight thousand, eight hundred and eighty-eight. In short, he has envisaged his life as placed in relation to a progression that has no foreseeable conclusion; never will he die satisfied that he has done enough counting.

How Opalka envisions his life may seem very peculiar and distinctive to him. But at least to a certain degree, everybody who lives in a rational, civilized society will experience his or her life as like this. In his essay “Science as a Vocation”, Max Weber argues that because we live in a world invested in scientific and cultural development, death itself has ceased to be a meaningful phenomenon. The ideal of 'advancement' itself has changed the status of death.

Weber’s reasoning relies on Tolstoy here, who notes that Abraham, or even an old peasant, could die “old and satiated with life”, since they still remained in the organic cycle of life. At the end of their days, they truly could die contented that life had given them all that life had to offer. But no modern, civilized person could spend their last days resting in this satisfaction. Because we are conscious that change and transformation will continue long after we have passed away, no one could ever say that their life experience has been anything other than provisional. Consequently, death itself seems less meaningful.

Opalka’s art is testament to this change in the status of death that Max Weber outlines. The artist’s faith in incessant, incremental progress has cancelled out any residual faith in the conclusiveness of the eternal.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Three Versions Of The Self

Add caption

Bas Jan Ader, I'm too sad to tell you, 1970

"I go my lonely way along paths that no one has made for me."

                                                                              - Michelangelo

"Why have we kept our own names ? Out of habit, purely out
of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render
imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel and think.
Also because its nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun
rises, when everybody knows its only a manner of speaking.
To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point
where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are
no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided,
inspired, multiplied.
                                                                          - Deleuze & Guattari

"This moral philosophy has tended to focus on what it is right to do
rather than on what it is good to be, on defining the content
of obligation rather than the nature of the good life; and it has
no conceptual place left for a notion of the good as the object
of our love or allegiance or, as Iris Murdoch portrayed it in her work,
as the privileged focus of attention or will."

                                                                            - Charles Taylor

It was inevitably the case, until very recently, that monographs took
a chronological or narrative form, tracking the development of
a body of work to the course of an artist's life. Change was
understood as occurring within a sense of self or oeuvre that
could be recognized across the changes.

Contemporary practice rejects such continuity as illusory and instead
works from a Deleuzean or post-modernist model of the multiple self,
different in all its moments. Don't expect work from one show to bear
any resemblance to work from the last show or the next. In this
version, ideas arrive (often fully developed) in the breaks in
self-recognition, out of a personal or professional ascesis, from
a prompting of the surrounding culture, or in answer to an impulse
of desire.

Neither of these models seems to fit artists who endlessly produce
the same. Perhaps for them the self is emergent: they will be the
person who will keep their promise, who will carry out a practice,
who will get the work done. In this case, the whole question of a self
may be postponed, in attention to a task at hand.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Opalka: towards white on white

In September 1973 Opalka completed a Detail in which he ‘crossed the million’ – as he phrased it in a telegram to a collector. It had taken him eight years, and he was now 42 years old.

In 1972, the year before, he decided to modify his commitment to retaining an absolute consistency in his canvases in one important way.

He planned to alter the dark grey background on which he had been painting his numbers, ‘to make each subsequent painting about 1% lighter than the one before it’. It is also apparent that with the passing years the portrait photographs he takes of himself are becoming increasingly lighter.

Opalka envisages the day when, in his Details, figure and ground will merge completely, and he will be applying white on white, so that the numbers become entirely invisible. At that moment, the only lasting documentation of the artist’s activity would be the audio recording of him counting out the digits as he proceeds up the number continuum.

It is clear that the whitening of the canvases is intended as a visual correlative to numerical progression. If a range of his Details were arranged sequentially, a viewer would perceive at a distance a gradual, controlled bleaching of the paintings – only accentuating the continuity of the project from decade to decade.

Opalka explained that he came to this decision to modify the colour of his backgrounds after having reflecting on how many Details he would be able to produce over the course of his life: he calculated this, apparently, based on the life expectancy of an average European. We can surmise then that he estimated he would be approaching white on white at a stage extremely late in his life.

In a similar way as Achilles will never get ahead of the tortoise in Zeno’s famous paradox, it is physically impossible for Opalka ever to attain a pure background by adding a little more lighter paint to his grey mix. In perceptual terms, however, he is now noticeably near to painting on a white background.

Opalka will be eighty this year, and it is hard not to analogize the paleness of his canvases to the whiteness of the hair in the accompanying photographs, which are now very light and over-exposed. Yet the whitening might also be perceived as symbolic of a gradual reaching towards infinity in an absolute sense.

Opalka’s art seems to constantly invoke the ideal of infinity as completion, enlightenment, wholeness – as something superior than what Hegel would call a ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ infinity (just one thing after another, going on for ever). The prospect of attaining this state is the constant underlying drama underscoring Opalka’s relentless progression. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Opalka's consistency

Opalka's studio in 1972, indicating the camera and lamp positions 
he uses for photographing himself

Opalka is conscious that his program needs to retain an exceptionally high level of consistency. The canvases must remain the same size (195 x 135cm), the lines of numbers must stay straight and not vary in height, his black-and-white self-portrait photographs (shot at the end of the day when the painting is concluded for the evening) must be taken always against a white backdrop under the same lighting conditions, with the same expressionless frontal gaze, and so on. Only if he strives to keep his project utterly consistent, and consciously works to constrain any differences, however slight, will tiny, involuntary variations gradually become apparent. These little variations and differences might merely register the contingencies of everyday life, such as a pause to answer the phone, or a momentary slip of concentration, or whatever. Or, they reflect his inevitably aging bodily facilities.

Opalka's final painting

Opalka once called himself an “accountant of irreversible time” and it is hard to think of another artist who is more preoccupied with his own mortality.

“When will the life-work conclude?” – the artist was once asked.

“Your question concerns my last Detail, the biggest suspense of my life-work…. The last conclusion will be what the ponderous painting of the first sign of “1” started at the easel of the first Detail.”

It is clear that Opalka’s thoughts have turned on many occasions to the last painting he will ever produce, when the gradual progression of numbers will reach an abrupt halt.

In 1987 he spoke of his wish not to die in a pause between finishing one work and commencing the next, but mid-way through a canvas: “I never finish a given Detail without starting another as quickly as possible: I thereby reduce the risk of seeing my life draw to an end at the end of a given Detail, rather than putting an end to my work by ceasing to be.”

In 2004 he told his interviewer that he believed that since he would be continuing his project for the full duration of his life, death was “included in the conception of this program.” “It’s rather as if death was collaborating with the work”, he adds. “For the first time in the history of painting, an unfinished painting defines the absolute finished painting.” 

Opalka's Statement of Intent, 1972

In 1972, Roman Opalka wrote out a statement by hand, which has been reproduced countless times in exhibition catalogues. Translated into English it reads:

"In my approach, which is a life-long program, progression registers the process of work, documents and defines time. There is only one date, that of the coming to life of the first detail of the idea of progressive counting.
Each successive detail is one element of the whole. It is designated with the date of the first and last number in the given detail. I count progressively from 1 towards infinity on details of the same size (with the exception of 'travel sheets'), by hand, using a brush and white paint on a grey background, assuming that the backdrop of each following detail will be 1% fainter than that of the preceding one. As a consequence, I envisage my reaching the limit, where details will be counted in white over whiteness.
Each detail is supplemented by a phonetic recording on an audio tape and by photographs of my face."

A decent reproduction of a section of Opalka's first Detail (1-35327), currently in the Sztuki Museum in Lodz, is included in the French catalogue published by Flammarion in 1992.

Unfortunately the picture is cropped on the left hand side, so you can't quite make out Opalka's initial number 1, but this is still a useful illustration:

By 2010, Opalka had completed 233 canvases, and had reached the number 5600000.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Adrian Piper

What Will Become of Me (December 1, 1985-on. Ongoing
installation: Hair, skin and nails collected in honey jars)

"1985 was a bad year. My father had been diagnosed with cancer
of the pharynx the previous fall. My marriage began to fall apart
in January. I sought counselling to help my mother deal with my
father's illness. My father died in April. In June I received my
senior colleagues' yearly evaluation of my philosophical work,
which they had written up after consulting a university lawyer
about how to deny me tenure without incurring a lawsuit. In it they
described my work as 'incoherent,' 'inadequate' and 'defective,'
and me personally as 'baffling,' 'frustrating,' and 'unresponsive'
(albeit 'poised'). During the following summer and fall, my marriage
deteriorated further. By the time I was denied tenure in mid-
December, my husband and I had not been on speaking terms
for weeks.

I felt sure that if I could just hold myself together for long enough
to escape from Ann Arbor, I'd be alright."

                                                                    - Adrian Piper

Cuttings will continue to be collected in honey jars up to
the artist's death, when her ashes will complete the series.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Broken Clock

One Hour Sun Drawing, Roger Ackling 1976

Roger Ackling burns marks on wood or card, using a small lens
to focus the sun's rays. This is a complete description. Although
the works have changed over the years, becoming more or less
complex, insisting on their own particularity or more modestly
contributing to a larger installation, the moment of focus, of
attention to making, does not change. It is returned to again
and again.

Making is a means of eliciting this quality of attention, in a moment
without qualities, out of time. While early works marked duration
in obedience to a concept ('One Hour Sun Drawing' or 'cloud
drawings' in which the marks were dictated by the coming or going
of the sun), once the moment of making was discovered, the concept
could be dropped. The intentionality of the idea is a poor indicator of
the timeless. Its content is a diversion.

For all their charisma and apparent self-sufficiency, Ackling's works
are little more substantial than the smoke given off by burning. They
exist as a residue or evidence of the focused moment of their making.
This is an art that is all practice.

Broken Clock, Roger Ackling, 1990