Roman Opalka and Tricia Rumbolz
By Susan Thomas
Purity of intention and physical, focused energy are components essential to great conceptual art. Without them, a concept is merely visual, with results that range from cold or no connection with the viewer to something so intellectualized the audience feels stupid not to “get” the message. Alienating indeed. Successful conceptual artists use art as a means to relate to the world and to experience existence rather than simply express themselves. And they invite us to join their exploration.
The death this past August of Polish conceptual great Roman Opalka sparked recognition of a kindred artistic spirit, Chicago artist Tricia Rumbolz. Like Opalka, Rumbolz seeks an experience of time as a point of transformation for her art; the results visually rhythmic, organic and often mesmerizing.
Opalka died at age 77, after spending the greater part of 46 years painting the succession of numbers on canvas. This effort to document one to infinity in order to express and define the meaning/passage of time became his life’s work. Rumbolz shares Opalka’s obsession with time, albeit reflected with more variety of process. Rumbolz (who exhibits at Las Manos Gallery in Andersonville, and the now closed David Weinberg Gallery) is a conceptual artist worthy of note; her work continually underscoring and exemplifying her chosen themes.
Opalka’s main body of work, 233 canvases of the same dimension, were paint-brushed numbers. Started in 1965, all of these works are titled the same, “Opalka 1965-Infinity,” (infinity represented by a sideways 8). His goal was to visualize the irreversible passage of time. Year after year the disciplined aesthetic stood at the canvas painting numerals in succession, in later years, photographing himself next the to canvas or “detail” at the end of each session (passing 1,000,000 in the early 1970’s). He would recite each number aloud as he painted it. The only variance in Opalka’s process was to lighten his background from black to gray, adding 1% more white to it every year. Ultimately, because his acrylic numbers were painted in white, the background and the subject meshed almost indistinguishably into approaching invisibility.
Opalka did not stray from his concept since its inception, pursuing a singular vision with awe-inspiring discipline. “A single thing, a single life,” he said. Rumbolz prefers differing her approaches to illustrate time, place, energy and physicality. In “187 Vertical Lines,” (acrylic paint, paint pen on wooden panel) Rumbolz describes the physicality and immediacy of her process: “My hand performs like a sensor, a point of convergence between time, space, energy and my body; the drawings are visual imprints/recordings of the activity itself.” She works with intense precision. “I do this to infuse the work with authenticity: This is what my individual body/mind is capable of producing at this given moment,” says Rumbolz. The line drawings are sequential, “the preceding line always and only informs the following line, therefore the drawing reveals itself slowly and methodically,” Rumbolz explains. A sensual scrim of undulating lines is the end result of her initial conceptual question: What is the simplest mark a hand can make?
"10 Color 60 Second Marker Bleed" - Marker ink on typing paper
Most of her works take hundreds upon hundreds of hours to complete, certainly less obsessionistic (and some would say less masochistic) than Opalka’s quest. And no less dramatic are Rumbolz’s work chronicling just seconds in time. In “1/4 Teaspoon of Powder, Blown with One Breath,” for example, particulate white powder’s time/space journey is captured starkly on black paper exactly where it lands: the powder’s movement documenting the energy and the time it takes to blow one breath. “10-Second Marker Bleed,” is just as scientific in execution and titled just as obviously. The process is fundamentally part of the art, the literal title also a form of purity of intention.
Rumbolz, 42, grew up in the steel-mill town of Sterling, Illinois, with very limited exposure to contemporary art. She credits the BFA program at UIC for instilling in her a strong conceptual foundation. “The faculty really pushed us to take accountability for every choice we made,” she says. She shares the ideology of other great conceptual artists such as On Kawara, Hanne Darboven and Lee Ufon in their quests to find the meaning in simply “being.”
Lee Ufon sought interrelationships between material space and viewer, acutely aware of the immediacy of the body’s role in the act of creation, which is central to how Rumbolz physically approaches her work. Darboven used texts from authors exploring “being.” Rumbolz also utilizes words and their symbolism in her art. Kawara’s work indicates specificity of time and place, though with more graphic toughness than Rumbolz. Central to all of these artists is their search for the deeper meaning of consciousness through creative process.
The intensity and purity of process also unites these artists in their quest. “Before I begin the physical work, I distill a mental concept down to its basic aesthetic components,” Rumbolz explains. “My style is straightforward and systematic so the steps involved in making the work are apparent to the viewer. I reveal the structure of the act which shows how beauty can be achieved through the simplest of means.”
Like the aforementioned artists, Rumbolz is a minimalist with her self-expression and has no desire to create “agreeable” art. These artists rebel against society’s endless manufacturing, production and consumption. “I do feel tribe-less at times,” Rumbolz says. “The hours and intensity involved in my art can definitely be isolating and I have to make an effort to compensate for that. We live in such fast-paced society that craves consumerism and instant gratification. My work is antithetical to that.” In a case of life imitating art, Rumbolz is simplifying her life now as well, downsizing her space and possessions considerably. Her next path of artistic exploration will incorporate data and technology into her process.
Opalka almost lost consciousness when he embarked on his journey, painting the number 1, then uttering it verbally. The enormity of the task he set before himself, like infinity, too great to comprehend. The final digit he painted on his canvas before he died was eight: Ironically, it is the symbol for infinity when turned on its side. His work of time and timelessness shared experientially on canvas is finished. As he said, “It is creation that inhabits the space between experience and understanding.” Now reminding us to continue such inner journeys is Tricia Rumbolz. Her work makes us pause deeply with thought and wonder, an offering of time accepted by contemplating the focus and energy of her work.