Vija Celmins was born in Riga, Latvia in 1938. Her family fled to the Stuttgart region in the west of Germany in 1944 before eventually leaving Germany for the USA in 1948. After a short time in New York they settled in Indianapolis, Indiana. Celmins studied painting at the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis between 1955 and 1962. During this period she regularly visited New York to see the work of the Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning.
In 1961 she received a Fellowship to Yale University Summer Session where she met a strong community of students and artists including Chuck Close and Brice Marden. She then attended UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) where she explored a variety of styles. After graduating from UCLA she found inspiration in the everyday objects in her studio – including a hot plate, a desk lamp, a fan, and a heater – painting them with minimal colour, using tonal gradations of grey.
In 1966 Celmins had her first solo exhibition at the David Stuart Galleries, Los Angeles. The exhibition included her first paintings based on photographs. The photographs, found in books and magazines, included a number of violent images such as warplanes, burning houses, guns and riots. These works are often associated with her childhood in Latvia and Germany during the Second World War (Storvse 2006, p.20) and were produced during the height of the Vietnam War. In the mid-1960s and early 1970s Celmins also made a number of sculptures of everyday objects such as Pencil 1968–70 and Comb 1969–70.
Over a five year period, from 1977 until 1982, Celmins worked on a series of sculptures entitled To Fix the Image in Memory. These sculptures combine found stones and bronze casts of them, which have been painted in acrylic to appear identical to the original, prompting the viewer to consider the nature of reality.
In 1979 Celmins had her first retrospective exhibition 'Vija Celmins: A Survey Exhibition', originating at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, which later travelled to Chicago, New York and Washington. In 1980 Celmins first collaborated with Gemini G.E.L. – an artists printmaking and sculpture workshop in Los Angeles – where she later did a series of intaglio prints including Constellation Uccello 1983, Concentric Bearings 1984 and Alliance 1983. That same year she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1981 she relocated to New York, where she continues to live and work.
In the early 1990s Celmins began to incorporate the spider’s web into her work (as in Web #1 1999) and in 1992 she had a major retrospective organised by Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which travelled to Los Angeles, New York and Seattle. Celmins has continued her serial exploration of natural forms to the present day through a variety of media including oil paint, charcoal, pencil drawing, printmaking, and sculpture.
Celmins’ other major solo exhibitions include 'Vija Celmins' at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris (1995); 'The Prints of Vija Celmins' at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2002); 'Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster', (1964–68), at the Menil Collection, Houston (2010); 'Desert, Sea, and Stars' at Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2011) and 'Vija Celmins; Double Reality' at The Latvian National Art Museum, Riga, (2014).
TateShots: Vija Celmins – ARTIST ROOMS
Born in Latvia in 1938, Vija Celmins is best known for her intricate, monochromatic drawings of a select range of subjects; meticulous renderings of the surface of the ocean, the vastness of the night sky or the microscopic detail of a spider's web. In 1966 she began to use photographs as the subjects for her works, creating what she described as 'impossible images', reminding us of the complexity of the simplest things. With her slow, painstaking approach, some of these works take years to complete.
ARTIST ROOMS presents the work of American artist Vija Celmins in a exhibition at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Uist, the Western Isles of Scotland.
As a young girl in her newly settled home in Indianapolis, Indiana, Celmins began collecting images from comic books and picture playing cards. Highlighting the importance of imagery from this early age the artist later reflected: 'I had stacks of comics because I had sort of taught myself how to read, because I couldn’t speak English. I only spoke Latvian, really' (quoted in Sussler 2011, p.6).
Celmins began using found photography as her source material in the mid-1960s, during the period when she was also engaged in making sculpture based on everyday functional objects. These sculptures are striking in their resemblance to actual objects and employ the Surrealist method of changing the size and scale.
The found or common object – with its origins in Marcel Duchamp and his readymades from the 1910s – was a popular subject in Pop Art, at its peak during the 1960s. Duchamp’s work saw something of a revival during this period, particularly for artists such as Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol. Celmins’ work from this period is often mentioned in relation to Pop, because of her use of found photographs as source material but Celmins’ work is far removed from the brash consumerism that seemed to typify Pop Art. She looked to the object paintings of Magritte and Giorgio Morandi for inspiration. Her early object paintings and interest in scientific imagery led to her drawings and prints of seas, night skies and deserts, with their extraordinary surfaces and physical presence.
Celmins’ body of work is part of an engagement with the natural world evident throughout the history of art. Giotto’s The Lamentation c.1305 from the Arena Chapel in Padua with its deep blue skies is a painting which made a strong impression on Celmins as she traveled around Europe as a student. In Celmins’ work however, the subject matter is secondary – her primary interest is that of making. She once said: 'I could never do portraits, or things that are too psychologically alive in the real world' (quoted in Sussler 2011, p.60).
Celmins takes details from images of nature’s surfaces and skies, but removes horizons or any central point of reference. She explores the representation of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. Speaking of her earliest works based on photographs of the ocean she has said: '…when I started doing the oceans, I made a few decisions. One decision was that I was going to go back to more of an abstract kind of work where I mapped out the image on the surface of my painting uniting the two closely' (quoted in Sussler 2011, p.22).
Images of the ocean first appeared in Celmins’ work in 1968, with a series of graphite pencil on paper drawings that experimented with variations in the density and tone of graphite. Speaking of its reappearance across many works and various decades, Celmins noted: 'The ocean image is one that is part of me and that I try to do every now and then with a new sensibility or process' (quoted in Rippner 2002, p.30). In Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992 1992 the ocean image is based on one of a group of photographs of the Pacific Ocean, taken by the artist near her studio in California in the late 1960s.
In the extensive group of prints by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS there are two other works that utilise the ocean motif: Drypoint – Ocean Surface 1983 and Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000 2000. It is likely that the same source photographs from the 1960s were used as the starting point for each of these printed images. Celmins took the photographs from the end of the pier where the vast ocean filled the camera’s viewfinder.
For Celmins a work of art doesn’t represent anything but itself. Through the photographic source material of oceans, night skies and deserts she relentlessly explores the image and the richness of its variation. As subjects they are united by their depiction of boundless nature and suggestion of the infinite. Speaking of her use of these images Celmins stated: 'I was so turned on by these scientific images, and I just couldn’t help but redo them' (quoted in Sussler 2011, p.29).
In her prints such as Alliance 1983 Celmins began making double-plate images just as she had previously made double image drawings (see Untitled (Desert-Galaxy) 1974). The juxtaposition of the images creates a dialogue between the night sky and another kind of spatial exploration on the picture plane, such as an engineer’s drawing of a ship or a desert floor. The placement of the image on the support is of crucial importance to Celmins because 'the images tend to run on and on, they have to be carefully ended' (quoted in Rippner 2002, p.14). In her printmaking the area of white paper increased so that the image became more concentrated. Celmins has said: ‘My feeling about the size of the borders has a corresponding effect on how one perceives the image’ (quoted in Rippner 2002, p.15).
Viewing Celmins’ works based on photographs of spider webs offers a different sense of perspective to the night skies and deserts. The spider webs are viewed roughly at the same angle and scale as they might be in nature. The web, however – like the night sky and desert floor – acts as a kind of map as it describes a surface. The effect of seeing these works together invites the viewer to consider not just perspective but proportion and scale.
As with her images of the desert, the lunar surface and galaxies, Celmins has explored the spider’s web serially. The writer and curator Elita Ansone relates the spider’s web to the night skies and notes that ‘with each work Celmins presents a different feeling and a different image, as if each were a new galaxy' (Ansone 2014, p.113). Web #1 1999 is one of six spider web works by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS, the remaining five of which are examples of the artist’s wide ranging printmaking practice, produced and published between 2001 and 2009.
During the course of her career Celmins has created sculptures, paintings, drawings and prints. Her painstakingly rendered works focus on a narrow range of subjects and are limited to a restricted monotone palette. The rigour with which Celmins executes her work is evident throughout her process from the selection of paper and material, the decision of scale and the choice of source material. Her artistic process involves masking out a desired area within a photograph and then replicating what she has framed using a grey-scale palette, inspired by the actual black-and-white photographs from which the work was developed.
In 1968 Celmins stopped painting in favour of drawing in graphite, later saying '...when I started doing graphite I got really into it…I was obsessed. I pushed the limits of the pencil to hold the image and make for strong work' (quoted in Sussler 2011, p.28). When working with graphite Celmins first coats the paper with acrylic to create a layer on the paper and reinforce the graphite. She spent the next few years drawing intense single images with no composition before she started putting pairs of images together on a single sheet of paper. Untitled (Desert-Galaxy) 1974 is an early example of these double images, which sees Celmins return to the recurring motifs of the desert landscape and the night sky.
Celmins returned to painting in 1983 feeling she had exhausted graphite and taken drawing as far as she could go. In 1994 she returned to drawing with a series of night skies but instead of graphite her materials were now charcoal and eraser. In drawings such as Night Sky #19 1999 Celmins builds on the surface of the paper using the charcoal and removes areas with various types of eraser, eventually exposing the paper. The white areas reveal the radiating strands of the web of stars in the night sky: 'I like to see the paper, because the paper is a player' (quoted in Sussler 2011, p.36).
Printmaking has also been an important part of Celmins' artistic output and she has worked with print media since the early 1960s. The 1980s were a particularly productive period for the artist when she worked on series such as Concentric Bearings, Alliance and Constellation Uccello made at Gemini, G.E.L. in Los Angeles. Celmins works in traditional intaglio (see Alliance 1983), lithographic (see Untitled Portfolio: Galaxy 1975), and relief processes (see Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992) to make her prints.
Celmins began collecting photographs and buying books containing imagery of the Second World War in Los Angeles in the mid 1960s. Some of these images of warplanes were subjects for paintings such as German Plane 1966. Although Celmins’ work is generally not autobiographical she has conceded that many of these works are related to her early childhood memories in Latvia of the Second World War. Reflecting on these childhood memories she revealed: '…it was a good time of great stress, mostly because there was so much noise and chaos. And my biggest fear was being left somewhere and not finding my parents' (quoted in Sussler 2011, p.2).
During the late 1960s Celmins also made paintings from photographs of smoking guns, automobile crashes and explosions. Writing in the catalogue for her retrospective at Institute of Contemporary Arts, Philadelphia, Dave Hickey suggested that Celmins’ shift from imagery of war and violence to the ocean, desert and sky, paralleled a shift in her 'personal life from the status of a refugee to a nomad – a nomad who could find her bearings from the infinitesimal reference points that nature offers' (Hickey in Storsve 2006, pp.23-4).
House #2 1965 is among Celmins' earliest sculptural work and relates to her wartime childhood experiences. Here, Celmins painted fires and plane crashes on the outside of a dollshouse. The sculpture is given additional pertinence by the knowledge that Celmins’ father was a builder of houses and the political backdrop in the 1960s included escalating protests against the Vietnam War. Discussing her early sculptural works and making specific reference to House #2 (one of her favourite pieces from the time) Celmins has said: 'I have to admit that there is a psychological component to the work' (quoted in Bartman 1991, p.20).
The warplane is also present in the Concentric Bearings series 1984. These prints are an important series, which Celmins produced with the Gemini G.E.L. print workshop in Los Angeles. In Concentric Bearings B 1984 an image of a falling plane being shot at is placed next to Celmins’ image of stars shooting in the night sky.
While there is a cosmic sense of time about Celmins elemental subject matter, it also allows the artist to approach space and light in a singular way. The subjects allow the artist to explore the relationship between deep space and the flat plane of the picture’s surface.
Influenced by Ad Reinhardt’s 'Twelve Rules for a New Academy' 1953, Celmins started to consciously strip away elements in her art and rejected gesture and composing. Returning again and again to ocean views, lunar surfaces and star fields Celmins depicts vast expanses and creates depth through her investigation of the image and her chosen material. Most of her images, like Web #1 1999, are painted or drawn very close to the edge of the surface she is working on and seem to extend beyond the frame of the image and into the space occupied by the viewer.
The focal point is the small compressed image in front of you; the illusion of space from the image stays on it. As the artist describes it, the image is ‘pinned down, in your mind it wants to expand out. Reality (the art) makes it stay where it is on the wall.'
Although Celmins has been associated with several art movements during her career – including Pop Art, Minimalism and, to a lesser extent, Conceptual Art – she seems always to have operated outside the dominant trends of the day. The rigour and the intuitive nature of her process has restricted the volume of her creative output and in turn limited displays of her work. Pop artists in particular were known for their speedy production but Celmins works at her own pace and has likened herself to the spider for its precise and industrious constructions.
Shooting stars, turning planets and rippling oceans suggest movement and the passing of time in Celmins images. In the 1980s when Celmins was particularly engaged in printmaking she made the Concentric Bearings series, which explored images of ‘turning space’ (see Rippner 2002, p.35). In the work Jupiter Moon – Constellation 1983, from the same period as the Concentric Bearings series, Celmins pairs one of Jupiter’s moons with a negative image of the night sky.
William S. Bartman (ed.), 'Vija Celmins interviewed by Chuck Close', New York 1991.
Samantha Rippner, The Prints of Vija Celmins, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002.
Susan Sollins, Art: 21: art in the twenty-first century, Vol. 2, New York 2003.
Jonas Storvse, Vija Celmins: Dessins = Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2006.
Betsy Sussler, 'Interview with Vija Celmins', The Museum of Modern Art, October 18, 2011, https://www.moma.org/pdfs/docs/learn/archives/transcript_celmins.pdf, accessed 1 April 2014.
Vija Celmins, 'Vija Celmins ARTIST ROOMS Tate Britain Display', 2012-13. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/display/vija-celmins, accessed 1 April 2014.
Elita Ansone, Vija Celmins Double Reality, exhibition catalogue, Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga 2014.