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.”