Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / Anyone walking out of the Vija Celmins retrospective that opened last week at SFMoMA thinking how good she is at copying things might just as well have stayed at Starbucks and googled her name on Wikipedia, where this dumber-than-dumb entry awaits:
Vija Celmins is an acclaimed Latvian-American visual artist best known for photo-realistic paintings and drawings of natural environments and phenomena such as the ocean, spider webs, star fields, and rocks. Her earlier work included pop sculptures and monochromatic representational paintings.
Saying Celmins is best known for photorealistic paintings and drawings of natural environments and phenomena is like saying Cézanne is best known for paintings and drawings of apples and mountains. For these two artists, meaning rests not in the subject matter, but in looking and seeing.
Celmin’s art should also never be confused with idealism or spiritualism, for even in the all-over paintings of nighttime skies, where thick and buffed multiple coats of dark paint prevent the images from looking like pieces of cloth cut from a bolt of fabric, everything is deeply grounded in empiricism. The artist works excruciatingly slowly, and the 140 graphite and charcoal drawings, oil paintings and a few sculptures in the exhibition represent almost half her entire oeuvre, which means relative to what most artists produce over a lifetime, hers is a noticeably small output.
Celmins, who this year turned 80 (she looks 60 at most), was born in Latvia. While still a child, she fled with her family after the Soviet invasion of the country near the end of World War 2. The family then spent several years in refugee camps in Germany before moving to Indianapolis, where Celmins went to the Herron School of Art and Design. In 1962, she went out to Los Angeles for graduate school at UCLA, and stayed on in LA until moving to New York in 1981.
Arranged in rough chronological order, the show begins in 1964 with still lifes painted from direct observation of objects in her studio done while Celmins was still in graduate school. This, she says, was the moment she rid herself of the “theories and aesthetics” she’d learned in art school and started over “in a more primitive place with just my eyes and my hand.” Heater (1964), for example, looks as if it was done by an earnest painting student. Not as deliberately hip as Pop, and certainly not hot like the abstract expressionism that prevailed in art schools at the time, it’s a quiet and deceptively ordinary painting done in monochromatic grays save for the glowing orange heating element in the center.
In the mid-60s, Celmins’s childhood memories of war found their voice in such paintings as Suspended Plane (1966), which were based on newspaper clippings of war imagery from the Second World War that she collected. Following these came graphite drawings, again based on photographs, only this time she took them herself, and the subject was the ocean near her studio in Venice, CA.
For the next several years, Celmins mostly alternated between drawing and painting, with subjects ranging from the Lunar Landing to desert floors, night constellations, night skies, shells and spider webs. She also made sculptural objects that were often juxtaposed with their replicas. The work from which the sub-title to the exhibition is taken, To Fix the Image in Memory I-XI (1977-82), is sculpture, but it also marked a return to using paint after more than 10 years of making nothing but drawings. It consists of eleven pairs of small stones found in the desert with matching bronze casts painted to look exactly like the original stones with all their varying little dots. A museum staff member said the only way installers could tell the difference between the original and the replicas was by holding them.
Celmins exhibition made me think of Seurat—not because the work is similar (it’s really not), but because these are two artists for whom drawing is the queen and painting the princess. Her most moving drawings are those done in graphite—ocean surfaces from the mid-60s through the 80s and night skies from the 70s and 80s predominate in the exhibition (in the 90s, she began drawing these subjects in charcoal, with results that are generally softer). Poke your nose close to the graphite surfaces and you see Ms. Celmins carefully rendering and erasing these two familiar yet sublime infinities so that every detail of every part of a wave or glowing star is carefully and exquisitely described. When her pressure is at its firmest, and the graphite pencil is a soft B, as in Star Field 1 (1982) the black sky is as deep as a black hole.
Ms. Celmins was influenced by such disparate phenomenological painters as Cézanne, Magritte, Morandi and Robert Irwin—all of whom made art based on the premise that what counts is looking and seeing, not knowing. A wall label next to one of the drawings says they aren’t matted because she doesn’t want any “window” or “illusion.” Though she may not want a window, she sure is fascinated by illusion.
During a press preview conversation between SFMoMA’s Gary Garrells, curator of the exhibition, and Celmins, someone in the audience asked if she would talk more about the “socially engaged work in her early pictures of war planes.” Celmins seemed a little nonplussed and took a moment to answer. “I’m not a person who talks about gender or politics or war in my work, but I certainly talk about it outside my work,” she said. There was another pause, and then, “The work is simply about itself, its own structure. I use images, but the images are pinned in the structure of the work.” Whether this satisfied the questioner wanting to hear more about “social engagement,” I’m not sure. Abstract painter that I am, it sure satisfied me.
“Vija Clemens: To Fix the Image in Memory,” curated by Gary Garrels. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA. Through March 31, 2019 / Art Gallery of Ontario: May 4, 2019, through August 4, 2019 / The Met Breuer, New York: September 24, 2019, through January 12, 2020 / NOTE: A conversation between Gary Garrels and Vija Celmins will take place in the SFMoMA auditorium January 31, 2019.
Footnote: The quotations from Celmins are from Gary Garrels’s catalogue essay.
About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University.
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