Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory at The Met Breuer

Published December 13, 2019 on Degree Critical.

Vija Celmins, Hot Plate, 1964, oil on canvas, 25 × 35 inches. Courtesy of Met Breuer.

“The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall.”

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

To artist Vija Celmins, everything in the world is of equal importance: a heater, a fan, an old letter addressed to Miss Vija Celmins, a burning plane from WWII, Saturn, the sea, the stars. Celmins fixes her objects of inspiration in time, as perfectly as can be. In the current Met Breuer exhibition Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, the artist’s first large-scale retrospective in decades, the viewer passes among a collection of moments accumulated by Celmins’s extraordinary mind, and reconstituted through her artistic process.

Celmins (b. 1938), a Latvian-born American who fled the Soviet Union with her family during World War II and immigrated to the US, moved to the West Coast in the 1960s. California’s varied landscape, with its beaches, deserts and trees, was pivotal to her transformation into an artist. She was fascinated by the act of looking, and in a world of endless possibilities, Celmins found her passion in looking at ordinary things. In the early years, she painted the everyday items that surrounded her—a heater and a lamp for instance, rendered in exact scale on the canvas with a simple, candid fidelity. She looked at these objects, and painted them with the same assiduous attention that she gave to graver subjects, like a hand shooting a gun, or warplanes burning, flying, and sinking, which she painted from photographs. Hot Plate (1964), for example, is a 25-inch square oil painting that Celmins executed by studying a hot plate in her studio. The composition includes only the little cooking device and nothing else, its scorching iron a bright orange-tinted red, over a gray background. Like Heater and Fan from the same year, Hot Plate is simple, with a central point of warmth and shininess. These paintings, seemingly neutral, and devoid of Celmins’s persona, connote an inventory of impersonal history. “I like things that turn on, that shine, that shoot, that fly in the air and that are active. There’s a magic to painting them,” Celmins is quoted as saying in the exhibition catalog that accompanies the show. As she plays with the objects and the distance and the flatness of the surface, these “things” she likes become art, their meaning altered by Celmins’s vision. They do become magical.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Ocean), 1975, oil on canvas, 12.48 x 16.53 inches. Courtesy of Tate Modern.

A time came, in the late 1960s, when she abandoned painting altogether and turned to drawing instead, recording and “redescribing” objects around her in another medium. Celmins has explained redescribing as “reimagining one surface on another.” She became a translator, a mediator between the artwork and the subject, the object and the surface. During the time she started to use graphite she found pieces of photographs, letters, and pages of magazines in her studio, and redescribed them, carefully and meticulously, on the drawing paper’s surface.

During this time and into the early 1970s, the artist turned her gaze onto the night sky, as well as the endless waves of the ocean. Discrete moments became more and more important, how things essentially were. At The Met Breuer, dozens of graphite and charcoal drawings document segments of the Pacific Ocean at specific times, made during a period when Celmins lived near Venice Beach. They are detailed, painstakingly precise drawings of waves covering the whole surface of the paper from the top to the bottom. Small in size, all titled Untitled (Ocean), created mostly between 1968-1973, the drawings are carried out with minute detail. At every point where Celmins’s pencil touched the paper, waves over the ocean’s surface become fixed in time.

Desert 1975 by Vija Celmins born 1938
Vija Celmins, Untitled (Desert), 1973, oil on canvas, 12.48 x 16.53 inches. Courtesy of Met Breuer.

Other drawings of the desert floor, and the constellations and stars of the night sky, like Untitled (Desert) and Untitled (Cassiopeia) (both 1973) are similar in technique and attentiveness. The waves, stars, and rocks of the desert floor fascinate the eye, despite their outward monotony. Nature tests the limits of Celmins’s skill and focus, and she puts in extreme labor to redescribe these organic subjects on paper and canvas. Every splash of the salty ocean water has its place, and every star that constitutes the constellation belongs in her work. “I’m not interested in telling stories,” Celmins has stated. Her practice instead involves looking at these elements repeatedly until they are fixed in her memory. Her process is different than a narrative, but it also doesn’t operate within a single moment like a photograph, which captures a split second in time. She labors over numerous split seconds, collects them, copies them, and morphs them into art. This intensely focused method, requiring long periods of meditation, soon becomes more important than any individual moment itself.

Celmins continued to illustrate the ocean and the night skies with painting, to which she returned in 1977, after more than a decade away from the medium. She revisited these themes, and painted stars and waves with her incredible diligence towards their natural repetition. A Painting in Six Parts (1986-87/2012-16), for instance, came to life over three decades. Six similarly sized canvases all depict the same moment she once captured on her camera, where waves ruffled over one another on the Pacific Ocean. Each painting forms almost the same image, with only slight variations. One has a greenish, murky hue; another looks almost too dark, like a restless sea at night; and one is a light, calculated grayscale. Celmins visited this exact image at least six times in 30 years, with a complete loyalty to its ever-changing, yet still reality. The waves were fixed in time, recorded perfectly in her memory each round. But even though memories seem still, they alter with time. All different than one another, the surfaces of A Painting in Six Parts are suffused with the same stillness.

celmins_to fix the image in mem
Vija Celmins, To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI, 1977–82, acrylic paint on eleven bronze objects, eleven stones, dimensions variable.

Celmins has absolute respect for things as they are. She isn’t trying to catch anything. A single moment always follows another and one isn’t more or less important than the next. “The painting is not a window,” she says in a video on the Met Breuer’s website. “The painting has its own reality.” That’s what she tries to achieve: She asks her viewer to look within and through her surfaces, to see another reality. And then she asks you to look again.

On a pedestal in one gallery, 11 rocks and 11 nearly identical artist-made objects are gathered together. The exhibition borrows its name from this installation, To Fix the Image in Memory I-XI (1977-82). Cast in bronze and painted over with acrylic, these 11 little works of art are uncanny in their resemblance to their found, natural twins.  Likewise, a different room features later works from the 2000s, namely Blackboard Tableau #1 (2007-10). Chalkboards stand on a ledge in pairs; three of them found tablets, and seven of them fabricated by Celmins as sculptures made of wood. Like the stones, she has produced them so meticulously that one nearly can’t say which is manufactured and which was made by the artist’s hand. In the end, neither is more “real” than the other. Celmins removes herself as she infuses these objects with intense, laborious concentration on their details. She lets the moment, the planet, the rock, the wood just be. Which ones are real? Like Celmins does, one must continually look, over and over again. And then once more.

Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory is on view at The Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, through January 12, 2020.