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SFMOMA opens first major Vija Celmins retrospective in more than 25 years
Vija Celmins in her studio, 2018; photo: Eric McNatt, courtesy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Long admired for her skillfully detailed renderings of natural imagery, Vija Celmins has created paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints for more than five decades. From December 15, 2018, through March 31, 2019, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presents the global debut of Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, the first North American retrospective of the artist’s work in more than 25 years.

Featuring nearly 150 works, the exhibition spans the breadth of Celmins’s career, from the 1960s to the present. Organized in loose chronological order by subject — including studio objects, disaster works, oceanscapes, lunar drawings, desert floors, night skies and spider webs — it presents a wide variety of media, including paintings, drawings in graphite and charcoal and sculptures.

“For more than 50 years, Celmins has sustained an extraordinary career, pursuing a unique vision using familiar subjects as a foundation for an intensive studio practice and exquisite, intimate compositions,” said Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA and lead exhibition curator. “This exhibition is an exciting culmination of more than 10 years working closely with the artist.”

Celmins began her career in Los Angeles, where she became one of the rare 1960s female artists to be recognized by her male peers and develop significant standing. In the early 1980s, she moved to New York, and is one of few figures to have been embraced by the art communities on both coasts. A singular artist, Celmins has never adhered to one particular artistic style, nor aligned herself with a movement or any particular group. The artist’s work reflects an extraordinary attention to materials and technique, and possesses a remarkable level of detail and subtlety. It is anchored in a reappraisal of images and memory.

“As you move through the exhibition galleries, the works’ mesmerizing seduction suggests a pause, asking you to stop, to look, to truly see and attempt to remember, to fully experience a moment in time,” said Garrels.

The several major bodies of work highlighted in the exhibition include:

Studio Objects
As a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in the 1960s, Celmins was very different from other Los Angeles artists at the time, who typically employed intense, vibrant colors in their work. During her studies in 1964, she made a series of still lifes of objects from her studio. These works were devoid of expressive brushwork and were rendered in a predominantly gray palette that allowed her to minimize decisions about color. Rather than inventing her subjects, Celmins aimed to “redescribe” them. Works such as Envelope (1964) and Heater (1964) are examples of this extreme distillation; pared back from simple descriptive rendering, they have an intense physicality. In this gallery, material is as important as image.

In the mid-1960s Celmins also made a few objects that she characterized as having “fallen out of the picture plane.” Like her still-life paintings, these sculptures are “redescriptions,” mostly of items from her studio, such as erasers and a pencil. They also include an oversize comb — Comb (1969–70) — inspired by René Magritte’s Personal Values (1952), a cornerstone of SFMOMA’s collection, which will be on view in the museum’s second-floor galleries.

Disaster Works
When Celmins was a child, the Soviets invaded her homeland of Latvia near the end of World War II, and she fled the country with her family. After moving between refugee camps in Germany for several years, the family’s passage to the United States was finally sponsored by an aid organization, and they ultimately settled in Indianapolis. In the mid-1960s, as the Vietnam War and associated protests were escalating, Celmins began to collect clippings of war imagery from newspapers, magazines, and books, recalling memories of “soot and trains and bombs from my very early times.” These images became central in her work, appearing first in paintings such as Suspended Plane (1966) and then in a series of small-scale graphite drawings, such as Pistol (1968) and Zeppelin (1968).

Ocean Drawings
Celmins’s second studio in Los Angeles was not far from Venice Beach, and in the mid-1960s, she began taking photographs of the ocean, which became a central subject of her drawings for the next 10 years. The images on view were formed by different strokes and densities of marks; highlights were created by allowing portions of the paper to remain visible, as seen in Untitled (Big Sea #2) (1969), among others.

Throughout her career, the artist has returned repeatedly to the same subjects, such as the ocean. “I tend to do images over and over again, because each one has a different tone, slant, a different relationship to the plane, and so a different meaning,” shared Celmins.

Lunar Landing Drawings
When Celmins was taking photographs of the ocean in the late 1960s, satellites were capturing the moon’s surface as Americans and Soviets raced to reach it. Attracted by their range of silvery grays, the artist began collecting these images from newspapers, magazines and astronomy books. She eventually amassed a large personal archive, on which she based a number of drawings, such as Untitled (Double Moon Surface), 1969. These compositions were determined by her decisions of which images to use; like the ocean works, they faithfully document any camera distortion, glare or blurriness in the source photographs.

Desert Floors and Constellations
In the early 1970s, Celmins began taking driving trips to deserts in California, northern Arizona and New Mexico. Becoming ever more engaged with the landscape, she took photographs of the desert floor as she collected astronomical photographs of galaxies, and she began a series of drawings of both subjects, often developed in relation to each other.

Highlights of this gallery include To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI (1977-82), from which the exhibition subtitle comes. Comprised of 11 pairs of found stones and their bronze casts, whose surfaces were fastidiously painted, this work was created over the course of five years, to redescribe the original stones.

Night Skies
In 1992, Celmins settled her focus on the night sky. The artist’s interest in materiality is evident in all her work, particularly in the night sky compositions. Among the canvases on view is Night Sky #16 (2000–1), in which more than 20 layers of paint were sanded off and reworked time and again. In the night sky works, ivory blacks were sometimes mixed with burnt umber, ultramarine blue or bits of white. Circles drawn at different sizes for stars were filled with tiny drops of liquid rubber that were sanded off as layers built up. Celmins remains acutely aware of the perceptual effects this labor creates.

The exhibition continues by tracing Celmins’s return to drawing in 1994, when she kept the night sky as her primary subject, this time working with charcoal rather than graphite to create compositions such as Untitled (Hubble #2) (1998).

Spider Webs
In 1992 — the same year Celmins began to concentrate on the night sky — she made a single painting of a spider web based on an image she found in a scientific text in a used bookstore. Not until 1998 would she return to that subject, in paint, in charcoal — as in seen in the delicate Web #1 (1998) — and in charcoal and graphite together.

As a flat structure, the web not only aligned with the small, rectangular formats of Celmins’s canvas and paper supports but also provided a kind of grid from which she could build her compositions. This gallery explores her attraction to this motif, which she proceeded to work with off and on for the next eight years.

Recent Works, From 2000 to Present
Over the last 20 years, Celmins’s work has grown more open and expansive. She is increasingly direct in her painting of the night skies, with less sanding and layering. She has returned to earlier motifs, such as the gun from her “Disaster Works,” and has created new paintings based on found objects, such as Japanese Book (2007–8). In the gallery of recent works, visitors will also see depictions of objects in her studio — close-ups of shell fragments, pieces of porcelain — that reference her early still lifes but now extend to the edges of her canvases, filling the frames like her earlier ocean and night sky compositions.

Other recent works in this gallery reflect an interest in memory and the passage of time. In the late 1990s, Celmins began to collect children’s slate blackboards. She engaged a sculptor and furniture maker to create duplicates of some of the tablets, which she then painted to replicate the originals as closely as possible for works like Blackboard Tableau #1 (2007–10).

The ocean also continues to be a subject of central interest to Celmins. After living with one of her earliest ocean paintings in her studio for several years, she painted five variations, slightly changing the size and palette of each. In recent decades, she has painted larger night skies, some at the same scale as her first, Barrier (1985–86). An ever evolving artist, in 2000–1, Celmins adopted a new approach, using a light rather than dark ground: a reverse night sky. Darkened highlights echo stars, and touches of color enliven and enrich the ground.

Throughout her career, Celmins has shifted fluidly between these different media, approaching each one with equal seriousness and intensity. Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory celebrates the full, extraordinary range of the artist’s career.

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