Vija Celmins

By Mercedes Weidmer

An ocean, a desert, a night sky … Vija Celmins’ photorealistic paintings have impressed the art world for over forty years.

Born in Latvia in 1938, Celmins and her family immigrated to the United States at the age of ten. Raised in Indiana, she studied at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis from 1955 to 1962, before moving to California to become an artist, even receiving a Master’s Degree in Fine Art from UCLA in 1963. She has had over forty solo exhibitions and retrospectives since 1965, and is considered one of the finest and most sought-after female artists of our time. 

 Vija Celmins,  Untitled (Irregular Desert),  1973. Graphite on synthetic polymer ground on paper, 30.5x38.1cm.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Irregular Desert), 1973. Graphite on synthetic polymer ground on paper, 30.5x38.1cm.

Her early work consisted of the simple representational paintings of everyday inanimate objects found in her studio. Often, these objects had the ability to be turned on or off. Ironically, these potentially dynamic subjects are depicted with a stark stillness, emphasized by her photorealistic technique. Later, she began to collect photographs from nearby archives and shops. Often of a scientific nature, these photographs are copied in paint with astonishing accuracy. However, she would argue that these are not copies nor illusionistic windows – as she is suspicious of illusionism – but two-dimensional objects in their own right.

  Vija Celmins,  Heater,  1964. Oil on canvas, 121x122cm, Matthew Marks Gallery.

Vija Celmins, Heater, 1964. Oil on canvas, 121x122cm, Matthew Marks Gallery.

Influenced by ascetic abstractionist painter Ad Reinhardt’s 12 Rules of Painting, these images reject composition and form. Instead, they present her versions of small star constellations, rolling waves, collections of dust. Celmins’ details are abstract in their lack of composition and form, and call more attention to her artistry in their depiction than on the subjects themselves. These often scientific photographs inspire her due to their distance from painterly convention and simplicity. Her role then as an artist, she argues, is not to copy with photorealistic accuracy, but to present her own subjective interpretation of a natural phenomenon. She relinquishes the shackles of ‘copying’ nature, and relishes in making these un-knowable subjects hers through the artistic process itself. Her works then are not a comment on the ocean, sky or moon, but about “the magic” of her process of rendering her oceans, skies, and moons in paint. “Through the making you make a million decisions, that gives the work a kind of personal identity that develops over painting it.” Through her stark precision and minute detail, you are encouraged to be absorbed into the work, her constellation of decisions, that is a window onto her process.

  Vija Celmins,  Strata,  1983. Mezzotint, 59.7x74.4cm.

Vija Celmins, Strata, 1983. Mezzotint, 59.7x74.4cm.

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