"I’m not a very confessional artist, you know. I don’t ever reveal what I’m feeling in my work, or what I think about the President. I use nature. I use found images." - Vija Celmins
For more than five decades, Latvian artist Vija Celmins (b. 1938) has worked across a variety of mediums, most notably creating detailed photo-based drawings and paintings of nature. Celmins’ labor intensive, painstaking depictions of oceans, spider webs, space, and desert landscapes have been reoccurring themes throughout her oeuvre that she executes in meditative, spatial compositions that lack a focal point. Celmins transforms tangible photographs into subject matter in their own right. As Celmins explains, “the photo is an alternative subject, another layer that creates distance. And distance creates an opportunity to view the work more slowly and to explore your relationship to it.”
Celmins was born in Riga, Latvia right before the onset of the Second World War. Upon the Soviet Occupation of this small nation, Celmins and her family lived in refugee camps and then fled to Indianapolis in 1948, when Celmins was only ten years old. Unable to speak English at first, Celmins turned to drawing at an early age and collected images from comic books. She developed a persistent passion for art with critical attention to detail inherent in photographs.
Celmins studied painting at the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, receiving her BFA in 1962, and graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles with her MFA in 1964. Between her first and second years of college, in 1961, Celmins attended a summer fellowship at Yale University where she became acquainted with artists Chuck Close and Brice Marden, whom she remains close with today. After graduating from UCLA, Celmins rented a studio space in Venice, California to pursue her career as an artist while teaching drawing and sculpture at colleges throughout the state. Although abstraction was the dominant form of artistic expression during this time, Celmins explored an exacting representational style in her art.
Throughout the 1960s, Celmins’ infatuation with depicting the world around her grew. Often mediated by photography but sometimes taken from direct observation of quotidian objects in her Venice studio, Celmins began painting deadpan images of envelopes, lamps, fans, heaters, and TVs that sprawled across large-scale canvases. Concurrently, Celmins created enlarged sculptures of objects like pencils or erasers that she exhibited alongside the objects from which she drew her inspiration. In her early paintings, Celmins became a master of gray tones, centering her color palette on whites and blacks – an artistic tendency that continues throughout her career. While Celmins’ work is not autobiographical, she also created photorealistic paintings of explosions, warplanes, and smoking guns in the mid-1960s that recall her childhood memories growing up during the Second World War. Though she directly drew from images in books about the War instead of from memory, there is some connection to her childhood prevalent in these paintings. Celmins’ paintings in the early to mid 1960s were a catalyst for turning her acute focus on drawing from photographs, leading Celmins to expand on images found in magazines, history books, and her own photography of the Pacific Ocean near her studio.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Celmins moved from oil paints to graphite pencils on acrylic ground paper. The thin, ground layer of acrylic paint makes the surface of the paper smooth and allows the pencil to glide across more easily. She enjoyed the exacting lines this medium allowed her to create. Celmins expressed her relationship with this unforgiving medium; "each point of pencil to paper is a point of consciousness, a record of having been there." She starts this arduous drawing process by selecting a detailed area within a photograph and then recreates the section using a range of gray pencils to depict the different tonalities and densities within the photographs. Using a bridge to suspend her hand over the drawing, she begins at the bottom left-hand corner and works her way up to the top right-hand corner. She recreates the image stroke by stroke and starts over if she makes a mistake instead of using an eraser. Celmins has described her creative process as “translations”; “Part of what I do is document another surface and sort of translate it. They’re like translations, and then part of it is fiction, which is invention.”
Celmins first depicted the ocean in 1968, when she began focusing on drawing. The ocean is a subject Celmins has returned to consistently throughout her career, along with other natural themes like the desert ground, starry night skies, rocks, and spider webs, with subtle variations of sensibility and process. Merging photorealism with creative license to capture the impossible subliminal beauty of nature, Celmins’ drawings successfully translate the detail of these photographs in elegant and enigmatic ways. Her works draw viewers’ attention to the process of art making itself while provoking disorientation with subtle familiarities. Celmins has relied on printmaking as an important part of her artistic output and later reincorporated oil on canvas and sculpture back into her oeuvre as well. Despite the realism of her paintings, drawings and prints, her images relate to all-over abstraction by rejecting pictorial conventions of depth.
Celmins lives and works in New York, creating intimate and large-scale drawings, prints, paintings, and sculptures – some of which adhere to her characteristic themes and styles, and others of which explore new ones. Celmins has been the subject of numerous major museum retrospectives around the world since 1965, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.