Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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“She is an artist’s artist, with a unique vision,” said Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) of Vija Celmins, the much-admired Latvian-American artist whose first full retrospective in more than 25 years is now on view at SFMOMA. The exhibit will then travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto and The Met Breuer, New York City. SFMOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of New York co-organized the exhibit

The 80-year-old Vija Celmins (pronounced VEE-ya SELL-muns), best known for photo-realistic paintings and drawings of natural subjects such as the night sky, the ocean, desert floors, spider webs, and rocks, may have a lower profile than some others of equal or lesser talent, yet, in her quiet, but remarkable way, she is respected and beloved by other artists, museums and collectors..

Born in Riga, Latvia, Celmins and her family fled to Germany in 1940 when the Soviet Army occupied Latvia. They survived Nazi rule, then lived in a United Nations-supported Latvian refugee camp until they were relocated to the U. S. after World War II. Vija Celmins was then ten years old.

Celmins’ retrospective show, entitled To Fix the Image in Memory, named after one of her most prominent pieces, consists of nearly 150 works displayed in roughly chronological order, which also corresponds with a thematic order.

The exhibition begins with pieces done in 1964 while Celmins was still a student pursuing an MFA at the University of California at Los Angeles and living in L.A.’s Venice. At the press preview at which the artist spoke, she said that she worked in an “empty studio in Venice with a concrete floor.” The subjects of the earliest paintings in the retrospective, each typically completed in three to four days, were of objects in her studio, like the painting of her space heater (“Heater” 1964) and an envelope from a letter from her mother (“Envelope” 1964), “painted as a way to get in touch with something simple,” she said. She also recreated commonplace objects such as TVs, combs, and pencils with mind-boggling authenticity.

Celmins believes that “the mind does the painting.” An underlying theme in her early photo-realistic paintings from 1965 – 1968 is violence and conflict — pictures of warplanes, handguns, and riots (“Burning Man”1968,” Gun” 1968). She tore photographs from newspapers and painted the images on a flat surface. “Regurgitating my own life,” she stated.

The next phase of Celmins’ oeuvre is graphite pencil drawings of the ocean. In 1964 she began photographing the ocean and then drew from the photos to “throw decorative things away and just document images,” she said. The gray drawings are remarkable in their technique and detail and lack a horizon or perspective.

In the early 1970s, Celmins began visiting the Southwest. She took photographs of the desert floor and the night sky. Using graphite, she drew the sky, leaving uncolored and white the area of the stars. In the center of one room is “To Fix the Image in Memory,” a sculptural work of rocks and their exact doubles made from cast-bronze and painted. It’s impossible to tell the difference between the real stones and their look-alikes.

In recent years, Celmins has grown fascinated with children’s antique slate blackboards, reflecting her interest in the passage of time. She retained a sculptor to create doubles of them, which she then painted. The real and the created slates are absolutely identical.

Aside from her raw artistic prowess, what is unique about Celmins’ art is that she has not followed any one style or movement. Her oeuvre possesses a remarkable level of detail and subtlety. For Vija Celmins, “Work is about itself and its structure. It has its own power and life.”

By Emily S. Mendel


©Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved.

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