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Collections> Browse Vija Celmins

Vija Celmins
Holdings (4)
1 book, 2 edition prints/proofs, 1 painting

Wikipedia About Vija Celmins

essay Vija Celmins, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Since the 1960s, Vija Celmins has created meticulously detailed paintings, drawings, and prints of such environments as the night sky, desert floor, or ocean surface that question the nature of illusion and reality. Her artworks are modest in scale, yet contemplate what she calls “impossible images … nonspecific, too big, spaces unbound.”1 Celmins uses photographs, both found and her own, as a point of departure. She laboriously creates her pieces through rigorous transcription from source image to final form—in the process, the work transcends the photograph to assume a physical life of its own.

Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1938, Celmins and her family relocated to Germany during World War II, and in 1948 immigrated to the United States, settling in Indianapolis, Indiana. Unable at first to read or speak English, she spent much time as a child drawing. In 1955 she entered art school, and in 1961, received a scholarship to attend Yale Summer School, where she met fellow painters Chuck Close, Brice Marden, and others who encouraged her work. In 1962, she enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, to con-tinue graduate study in painting.2 There she became enamored of the ocean, desert, and sky of the California landscape.

Like many painters in the early 1960s, Celmins sought to break from the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. Her first paintings, produced in 1964, were still lifes of everyday items found in her studio. Painted in lush grays, the objects—a hot plate, a space heater, a lamp—all seemed tinged with a threat of impending danger, a spirit unlike the bright Pop images appearing on the opposite American coast.3 These were followed by grisaille paintings, based on photographs, of more unsettling subjects: bomber planes, a revolver, an automobile accident. Other early paintings were more prosaic, inspired by endless stretches of Los Angeles freeway observed from her car.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Celmins abandoned painting for drawing, which she felt was a more direct form of working. With pencil, she began to create images of horizonless environments, such as ocean surfaces, moonscapes, and starry skies, executed as “all-over” compositions that moved into an arena more abstract than pictorial. In 1981, she moved to New York, and soon resumed painting her favorite subjects. Night Sky #6 (1993) is from her series of “galaxy” paintings. Unlike her other subjects, mainly originated from her own photographs, the night sky pictures are typically culled from publications on astronomy. Night Sky #6 was constructed in multiple layers of oil paint, each sanded to a pristine finish. It is small but borderless, evoking a sense of vast, ethereal depth, though on close inspection, the surface is resolutely flat—an interweaving of crisp and hazy white dots on velvet black.

Celmins observes that her work is about the experience of looking.4 Though her method is rigid, it reveals her deep interest in the physical properties of her materials. And, while her surfaces are inherently structural, her attention to detail, atmosphere, and light lend the works an air of the sublime. Like Close or Gerhard Richter, both artists who work from photographs and to whom her work is often compared, Celmins has created options by eliminating them. “I’m always aware of the limits of painting,” she remarked to Close in 1992, “and have come to think that the limits are what give it more meaning.”5

  1. Quoted in “Vija Celmins in Conversation with Jeanne Silverthorne,” Parkett 44 (1995): 40.

  2. Prior to entering graduate school, Celmins traveled to Europe, where she first encountered the work of Diego Velázquez. She recalls “the somberness of the paintings, the beautiful grays, blacks, and pinks.” The artist in a self-narrated “Chronology,” in William S. Bartman, ed., Vija Celmins (New York: A.R.T. Press, 1992), 61.

  3. Celmins acknowledges her awareness at the time of the paintings of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Malcolm Morley as well as the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi.

  4. Of her images, Celmins remarked in 1993, “I feel it is essential to [have] a sense of why they were done and how. Because that is the ART part, and the real connection to the work.” Celmins letter to Peter Boswell, May 24, 1993 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  5. Celmins interviewed by Chuck Close in Bartman, Vija Celmins, 12.

Engberg, Siri. “Vija Celmins.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center