The exhibition Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a privilege to behold. It is not only the images, but the retrospective itself that becomes fixed in memory as a lived experience. Celmin’s work offers an encounter with nature, the universe, and ultimately the self. It casts the viewer in the role of the figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, who is enraptured by the sublime vastness of the cosmos.
As my one-time professor, the late, great Robert Rosenblum suggested, Friedrich’s painting and evocations of the Sublime were translated into abstract terms by Mark Rothko in large-scale paintings that envelop the viewer in a colored, luminous “nothingness.” Celmins returns us to easel scale, to representation, and to earth in colorless paintings and drawings of the sea and the desert floor that lead us to confront the infinite. She keeps us in mind of the cosmos in pictures based on star maps and photographs of the surface of the moon. Her subjects extend from the vastness of the sea and skies to the intimacy of spider webs and to even more near-sighted looks at the patterns on a seashell and the craquelure of a vase. In both their subjects and meticulous execution, Celmins’ pictures inspire awe. Each also imparts a centering calm.
The retrospective opens with Celmins’ paintings and sculptures of common objects begun in the early 1960s. These are both related to and divorced from Pop Art, which at that time dominated the American art scene in New York and Los Angeles, the latter being where the artist originated (she relocated to New York, where she still resides, in 1981). The paintings show objects, such as an endearingly animated (think: Pixar) goosenecked desk lamp, rendered in muted tones and in a precise but nuanced manner, isolated in the center of otherwise blank compositions. While they share Pop’s object-focus, Celmins’ directly-observed subjects belonged not to the exterior, impersonal world of commerce and the mass media, but to her. These were objects of personal use and meaning, the paintings near-monochromatic tone poems.
Encased in the center of the gallery is a trio of realistic, but greatly enlarged Pink Pearl erasers (acrylic-on-wood sculptures). For Celmins, an artist devoted to drawing, the erasers probably served as constant companions; for me, they are nostalgia-laden objects, harking back to the schoolrooms of my youth.
Letter (1968), a hand-drawn work of extraordinary intimacy seen in the next gallery, was based on a photograph of a piece of mail sent to the artist in Venice, California, by her mother in Indiana. On the envelope, Celmins mimicked her mother’s graceful penmanship, but invented its stamps, which were not U.S. Postal Sevice-issued, but related to a series of paintings she executed in the mid-sixties, some of which were hanging nearby. Following in the wake of Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, which were also drawn from newspapers and magazines, Celmins’ paintings depicted bombings, explosions, fires, and warplanes. Again, these were wholly personal. Born in Latvia in 1938, the artist spent the better part of her first ten years of life as a refugee, traveling around Europe with her parents in flight from the Russians and the Nazis. The smoke-filled postage stamps, most of them representing bombs being dropped during air raids, looked back to childhood memories that her mother’s letter may have evoked.
Celmins’ graphite drawings of the Pacific Ocean, begun that same year, fill the whole of the next, generously proportioned gallery. While still working from photographs, in these drawings and in subsequent paintings and drawings based on observed natural phenomenon, Celmins was aligned not with Pop, but with Photo-Realism and its interest in transcribing the camera’s vision of real-world appearances. Most of these works are rendered in a palette of gray tones that approximate black and white photography. In each of Celmins’ detailed renderings of the sea, the surface of the ocean is seen from an angle, receding into the depths of a horizonless and seemingly limitless expanse. The swells and ripples grow ever-smaller and more faint from the bottom to the top of the support. The recession into depth plays against and defies the flatness of the picture surface.
Contemplating the intensely time-consuming nature of Celmins’ extended series of pictures of the sea and of the subjects that followed (day and night skies, the surface of the desert and the moon, and others that occupy gallery after gallery in the space of the exhibition) takes the breath away, causing one to wonder that only part of a lifetime was needed to carry them through to completion. One is filled with wonder too at Celmins’ technique–the obsessive attention to detail and seemingly endless repetition of similar marks within a particular piece and series. Although Celmins has said, “I see drawing as thinking, evidence of getting from one place to another,” the opposite of thinking is evoked, as one imagines the works to have been created in a Zen-like, meditative state.
A different approach to artmaking is evidenced in sculptural works created since about 2007 based upon children’s slate blackboards or tablets, many of which were included in the exhibition. These works look back to early sixties sculptures like the Pink Pearl Erasers as well as to extraordinary pieces made in the 1970s and ’80s in which Celmins hand-painted casts of small stones to resemble actual found stones and then exhibited the pair (or pairs) side-by-side. To create the tablets, Celmins engaged a sculptor to duplicate children’s slate blackboards she found in antique shops and elsewhere, then carefully painted the replicas, faithfully recording all cracks, splinters, and signs of wear. The original is then presented in tandem with its trompe l’oeil copy. Like the stones, these works seem to be about discerning differences, or the impossibility thereof. They suggest that whether focussing on microcosms, macrocosms, or facsimiles, Celmins’ work is ultimately concerned with having viewers notice the world about them in a focussed and concentrated way.
One wonders, however, at the artist’s preoccupation with recreating antique tablets that reach back to schoolrooms and childhoods of a distant, American past. Are the framed expanses of black meant to serve as portals to the infinite? Are they literally blank slates waiting for drawn or written marks? Or are they simply themselves, relics of the past possessed of a poetry all their own?
The biggest and most pressing question this wonder-filled exhibition left me with, however, is something other. Organized by SFMOMA, Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory is the artist’s first North American retrospective in over twenty-five years. The exhibition is not going to travel, so will not be widely seen. HOW CAN THIS BE??
The exhibition will be on view at SFMOMA through March 31, 2019.
Endnote: A painting by Celmins of special beauty and meaning to anyone like me who just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s 2018 novel, Unsheltered: