Roman Opalka was born on August 27, 1931, in Hocquincourt, France. Of Polish origin, his family returned to Poland in 1935 but was deported to Germany in 1940, where they remained in a labour camp until 1945. Upon release they returned to France and finally to Warsaw, where Opalka attended the graphic school of Walbrzych Nowa Ruda (1946–1948) and the School of Art and Design in Lódz (1949). A year later Opalka met his first wife, Halszka (Alina) Piekarczyk. From 1950 to 1956 he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, and in 1957 he travelled to Paris. In 1966 he had his first solo exhibition at the Galeria Dom Artysty Plastyka, Warsaw. A year earlier he started a lifelong project, entitled OPALKA 1965/1 – ∞, an endeavor he was devoted to entirely from 1970. His work has been inextricably linked to Conceptual Art ever since.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s he received several awards, including the Grand Prize at the First British International Print Biennial, Bradford (1968), two prizes at the 7th International Biennial Exhibition of Prints and at the Art Museum Ohara, both in Tokyo (1970), and the First Prize of the Ministry of Arts and Culture of Poland (1971). In 1972 he travelled to the United States for the first time. Four years later, in 1976, Opalka met his second wife, Marie-Madeleine Gazeau, and was granted a DAAD Scholarship that allowed him to live in Berlin for a year. After his stay in Germany, Opalka settled in Teille, France, in 1977. That same year he received a prize at the 14th São Paulo Bienal. In 1985 he took French citizenship and between 1985 and 1990 he was a visiting professor at the Summer Academy in Salzburg.

In the following years, Opalka exhibited widely and was awarded several prizes such as the National Prize of Painting, Paris (1991) and the Special Prize of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, Warsaw (1996). In 1992 he exhibited at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and in 1996 he represented Poland at the Venice Biennale. In 2002-2003 a great retrospective of his oeuvre toured several European venues. In 2009 he was made Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, Paris, and was given the Gold Medal of the Cultural Merit 'Gloria Artis' in Warsaw. Opalka died in Chieti, Italy, on August 6, 2011.