Renowned for her meticulous renderings of natural phenomena—including oceans, night skies, lunar landscapes and spider webs—Vija Celmins (b. 1938) has astonished viewers for over five decades.
The first North American retrospective of this extraordinary artist’s work in over 25 years, Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory features more than 110 works including recent paintings, sculptures and drawings in graphite and charcoal. Seen together, these captivating works demonstrate the artist’s commitment to seeing, looking and making.
Co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory opens at the AGO on May 4 and runs through August 5.
“For more than 50 years, Vija 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 the culmination of more than 10 years working closely with the artist, and we’re excited to share it with audiences at the AGO, the Met and SFMOMA.”
“Vija Celmins approaches her work with deep integrity and a distinctive commitment to detail,” said Kitty Scott, the AGO’s Carol and Morton Rapp Curator of Contemporary Art, who is overseeing the AGO’s installation of the exhibition. “Her delicate and subtle artworks invite the viewer to pause and contemplate a mesmerizing vision of the natural world – whether it’s oceans, deserts or galaxies.”
Celmins has never aligned with any one particular style or medium. She takes inspiration from her environment, be it her studio or the landscape. Her works, primarily in tonal shades of grey and black, express themselves through their attention to detail. “I’m not a very confessional artist. I don’t ever reveal what I’m feeling in my work, or what I think about the politic,” Celmins said. “I use nature. I use found images.” Working from newspapers, photographs, textbooks – and from life, Celmins refers to her process of translating objects and landscapes from one medium to another as “redescribing”.
Organized in loose chronological order, this expansive exhibition tracks the artist from the 1960s to the present. Opening with a selection of still life paintings featuring everyday objects from her studio, the exhibition features a poignant collection of WWII-inspired paintings such as Suspended Plane (1966). With no visible pilot and its propellers still, this haunting WWII fighter plane is seemingly frozen mid-air.
In the late 1960s, Celmins changed her medium from paint to graphite. In the exhibition, a selection of 14 ocean drawings and numerous lunar landscapes exemplify her mastery of the medium. Derived from photographs, she creates these highly detailed works using only differing strokes and degrees of pressure to shape the images. Filling nearly the entire picture frame, without any visible horizon, these works suggest boundless vistas.
Her focus shifted in the late 1970s to distilling the vastness of galaxies and the desert, prompting a series of interrelated drawings. In her work To Fix the Image in Memory I-XI (1977-82), which inspired the exhibition’s subtitle, she presents 11 found stones and their painted bronze pairs. Fastidiously made over the course of five years, the originals—river stones from New Mexico—are indistinguishable from their casts.
In 1992, Celmins began producing her hallmark paintings of the night sky and spider webs. Drawn from textbook images, these works are the product of tireless revision. Night Sky #16 (2000—1) is the cumulative result of over 20 layers of paint repeatedly sanded off and re-worked. The exhibition closes with a remarkable face off between two large paintings, Reverse Night Sky #4 (2015—17) and Night Sky #26 (2016—17). Hung in direct opposition, one light, one dark, these new works reflect a more expansive and ambiguous approach, evidence of her ever evolving practice.
Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory is included with the price of general admission and is free to AGO members. More information on the benefits of AGO membership can be found at www.ago.net/general-membership.
Photo: Vija Celmins, Suspended Plane, 1966. Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 71.1 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, by exchange, through the bequest of Elise S. Haas © Vija Celmins. Photo: courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.