1964 Was a Great Year for Vija Celmins

Vija Celmins, Lamp #1, 1964
This is a season of rediscovery for L.A. women artists of the 1960s and 70s generations. Unfortunately one of the more notable museum shows isn't coming to Los Angeles. "Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory" has just landed in New York (the Met Breuer), its final venue after runs in San Francisco and Toronto.

Celmins is best known for contemplative drawings and paintings of starscapes, ocean surfaces, and spiderwebs. Most were created after her move to New York in 1981. The chronological hang at the Met Breuer reminds visitors how compelling Celmins' art was from the outset. In 1964, the year before she graduated from UCLA, Celmins began a series of paintings of banal consumer goods in her Venice studio. Verging on monochrome, these paintings resist identification as still lifes. Celmins was long pigeonholed as a Pop artist, yet her work doesn't seem to say much about consumerism and exists on a different emotional register from Pop.
Vija Celmins, Heater, 1964
I wasn't aware of how many great paintings Celmins produced in 1964 (the year she turned 26). Not many painters produce such an assured body of work so early, one that stands up to her artistic maturity.

At her 1979 show at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Celmins chose Lamp #1 (1964) as the first painting visitors would see. The paired lamps look like eyes. Rather than a visual gag, or Pop irony, the effect is one of jamais vu—the uncanny sensation that familiar objects are strange.
Vija Celmins, Envelope, 1964
At the Met Breuer, the first painting on view is Envelope. It edges closer to a Chardin or Thiebaud still life while insisting on its difference. Like Heater it gives its subject too much space, making emptiness numinous.
Vija Celmins, Gun with Hand #1, 1964
The best-known 1964 painting must be Gun with Hand #1, owned by the Museum of Modern Art since 2005. Celmins photographed a boyfriend pointing a gun and adapted the smoke from photos of gun blasts. Made within months of the JFK assassination, its deadpan politics haven't dated. 
Vija Celmins, T.V., 1964
T.V. may be the most prescient of the 1964 studio pictures. (Owned by Steve Tisch, it's a promised gift to LACMA.) The screen image was taken from a photo of an exploding plane. Celmins grew up in wartime Latvia. In subsequent years she would produce paintings of WWII bombers, forest fires, and atrocities. If there's a meaningful Pop connection, it's to Warhol's disasters.


Anonymous said…
These paintings are incredible!! Glad to see an LA artist get some recognition (even if it's not in LA). Does anyone know when LACMA will get the TV painting? I would love to see it in person.
Anonymous said…
All the unseen, unspoken, impressive talents of a society. Whatever the cultural or political reasons are for artists like Celmins to have been overly marginalized through the years, her skill crosses all types of boundaries.

That's not unique to the world of art or this time in history. Look at the various TV shows today that focus on unknown talent in music or other categories. They highlight a lot of hidden excellence existing among millions of people, of all backgrounds.

In turn, there are a lot of questionable big names in culture that technically and artistically aren't nearly as impressive. Yet office politics, such as a person's place of residence (East Coast) or undeserved word-of-mouth (schmoozing with the hip and wealthy), gives them an upper hand.
drager meurtant said…
Great to see the art of someone from Latvia (moving via Germany, Indianapolis, LA to NY)
The transformation of every day items and circumstances, that's what her art is about. The exhibition in Met Breuer was one of three reasons to cross the ocean for me. And 'it paid out'.

thanks for the good essay, and best wishes,
Drager Meurtant