Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through March 31
Vija Celmins isn’t a household name, but she has produced “some of the most substantial, rewarding, and emotionally fraught art of the last half-century,” said Philip Kennicott in The Washington
Post. Twenty-five years after her last museum retrospective, this “most heroically humble of artists” has finally been awarded a show worthy of her oeuvre, which is still growing as she enters her 80s. Born in Latvia and raised in Indiana, Celmins has patiently pursued her own path in painting, drawing, and sculpture since the 1960s, ignoring trends in New York and Los Angeles, the cities she’s called home. Her photo-realistic renderings of the night sky and the ocean’s surface have won the most attention, but whatever the subject, her devotion to fine-grain seeing allows her access to the sublime. On that happy day when the art world begins celebrating sincerity again, Celmins will be seen as “one of the foundational figures of the new age.” “Be sure to put a lot of time on the parking meter, because this is not a show you can breeze through,” said Charles Desmarais in the San Francisco Chronicle. Many of the more than 140 works here are mental puzzles, as much about the complications of artistic representation as about the object of attention. Early works include almost monochromatic still lifes of various everyday objects: a hot plate, an electric fan. But Celmins also played with the idea of photorealism, collecting photos of war imagery, including bomber planes and mushroom clouds, and then reproducing the images in precise drawings that made clear she was drawing photographs. She has done similar things in sculpture: creating “startling, disorienting” enlarged replicas of such objects as a comb or a pink eraser. For five years, beginning in 1977, she worked on creating from bronze 11 exact replicas of stones she’d found in the desert. The originals and the fakes are exhibited together.
“The paradox is that when Celmins jazzes up her work even slightly, we lose interest,” said Peter Plagens in
The Wall Street Journal. There’s little reward in seeking meaning in a drawing, for example, that juxtaposes an image of a plane with an image of a night sky. But to create Blackboard Tableau #1 (2007–10), Celmins spent years collecting antique school slates, commissioned a sculptor to build pristine duplicates, then painted the duplicates to re-create the nicks, scratches, and what she called the “romantic atmosphere” of the originals. This is work that is defiant in its meticulousness, and “it’s that obdurateness that moves us.”
A Celmins ocean drawing: Devotional-level seeing