Vija Celmins

The cover of the catalogue for Vija Celmins’s recent exhibitions at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York and Los Angeles offers a smooth eggshell surface, empty save for two speckled stones and the artist’s name in a modest typeface. With no markers to measure against, these rocks could be pebbles or boulders, though something about their shape suggests they might slip perfectly into one’s palm. Titled simply Two Stones, 1977/2014–16, the objects are nearly identical, except that one is real and the other meticulously modeled in oil and bronze. As Bob Nickas explains in the catalogue’s sole essay, Two Stones was originally conceived as a twelfth set for Celmins’s To Fix the Image in Memory, 1977–82, a collection of eleven rocks pilfered from the desert of New Mexico, then displayed scattered alongside their trompe l’oeil replicas. This drive to “fix” an object as an image extends beyond Celmins’s re-creations of rocks and blackboards, lending a graysteeped gravitas to her portraits of mundane items such as desk lamps, hot plates, or space heaters. It also fuels her attempts to capture that which is fundamentally unfixable—the fleeting convergence of ocean waves or the immensity of the night sky.

Vija Celmins, A Painting in Six Parts(details), 1986–87/2012–16, oil on six canvases, overall 1' 31⁄8" × 20' 11".

Nickas grounds his reading of Celmins’s work in the experience of the studio. Despite her yawning seascapes or star-studded constellations, Celmins is no plein air painter. Her tendency to compress vast expanses into small frames means that even as her paintings inspire meditative contemplations of nature, viewers can never fully shake the sensation that they are looking at a fixed image. Even Celmins’s ongoing series of ocean views—sunlight slivered against the chop of uncrested waves, presented with a dizzying lack of horizon lines—can be traced to a single 1960s-era photo session off a pier in Venice, California, rather than time spent on the shore with her easel. In this sense, as Nickas argues, for all her masterful hyperrealism and barely there brushwork, Celmins is not trying to show us something, but is instead “using the image to see.” This distinction becomes clearer on consideration of a night-sky drawing from 1983 with a ponderous title, Holding Onto the Surface, that breaks from the painter’s tradition of simply numbering her series. A peculiar emphasis on the “surface” of the sky nudges the viewer toward another of Celmins’s observations: The “sky” as we know it doesn’t really exist at all—at least not as something that can be grasped or captured. So what exactly has she managed to hold onto?

In 1957, Ad Reinhardt published Twelve Rules for a New Academy, a caustic and somewhat puzzling screed railing against the “humiliation and trivialization of art in America.” Among his proposals: “No movement. Everything is on the move. Art should be still.” While several of Reinhardt’s other tenets—no sense of time or space, no immediately discernible size or scale, no texture, no visible brushwork—might readily apply to Celmins, Nickas seizes on this particular prohibition against movement as a means to describe what he sees as the painter’s “restless stillness.” Her compositions remain in process as they attempt to pin down what is inherently elusive.