In 1965, the French-born, Polish painter Roman Opalka came to an important decision. While sitting at a cafe in Warsaw, waiting for his wife to arrive, the idea occurred that he should begin to paint numbers that would progress sequentially from one canvas to the next for the duration of his life. Upon arriving at his studio the following day, he began to map out the terms of his intention. Soon after, Opalka was painting small numbers in white pigment against a black background. Each canvas, or Detail, as he called it, would begin in the upper left corner and gradually move to the lower right. Each application of white paint would continue until the brush became dry whereupon he would dab the brush and continue on as before. He would count aloud each number while coordinating the tiny movements of his brush. Upon completion, each canvas — or Detail — constituted a part of the whole. He understood his work as the culmination of a lifetime of painting when he famously proclaimed. “It’s important that my last Detail should not be finished by me, but my life.” Opalka died in 2011 at the age of 80.
3 You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
4 For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
7 For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
10 The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11 Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
12 So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.