JILL KREMENTZ PHOTO JOURNAL: Vija Celmins’ To Fix The Image in Memory at The Met Breuer

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Vija Celmins photographed by Jill Krementz at the Met Breuer on September 23, 2019.
“To ’fix’ the image in memory — not for itself but for its clarity and balance.
“Art offers its beautiful stillness ... a sense of wonder constructed over time ... sustained emotions.”
— Vija Celmins, 1980

Vija Celmins (born 1938) has been making paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture for more than fifty years. Having immigrated to the United States from Latvia as a child, she began her career in Los Angeles in the 1960s and moved to New York in the early 1980s.

While she is perhaps best known for distilling vast, indeterminate expanses of ocean, desert, and the night sky into small-scale artworks, the Met’s solo exhibition surveys the full breadth and evolution of her practice.

The exhibit begins on the fifth floor with Celmins’s earliest works from Los Angeles and continues below on Floor 4 with works from 1968 to the present. 

The opening night party was on Monday, September 25th where artists, gallerists, collectors, friends, and art critics embraced the Latvian native and her artistry.


Gary Garrels, Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Garrels curated the exhibition whch opened at SFMOMA before traveling to Ontario and finally New York.
He also authored the splendid catalogue which accompanies the exhibit.
Ian Alteveer has organized the show in New York. He has contributed an essay to the catalogue, “Longer Than Anywhere in the World: Vija Celmins on the East Coast.”
Chuck Close & Vija Celmins.
L. to r.: Sheena Wagstaff with Matthew Marks, whose gallery represents Vija Celmins; Daniel Weiss, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan and Matthew Marks.
Calvin Tomkins, Vija Celmins, and Dodie Kazanjian. Known as Tad, Mr. Tomkins wrote a profile of Vija Celmins for the September 2, 2019 issue of The New Yorker.
Left: Tad Tomkins & Vija Celmins.
Right: Martin and Jeanne Puryear talking to Jill Moser and Mary Heilmann.
Mr. Puryear’s “Liberty/Libertà” exhibition represented the United States at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Left: Jerry Saltz (Art Critic for New York Magazine) and his wife Roberta Smith (Co-Chief Art Critic for The New York Times).
Right: Jason Farago (an art critic for The New York Times) and Jerry Saltz descending to the 4th floor where the exhibition continues.
Jerry Saltz cooling off with Vija’s Fan, 1964, oil on canvas.
L. to r.: Alexandra Koziakowski, the Met’s Senior Publicist, wearing Ganni; Sculptor Elyn Zimmerman (the widow of Kirk Varnedoe).
George Condo.
Untitled (Ocean), 1969, Graphite on acrylic ground on paper.
Celmins’s Los Angeles studio was not far from Venice Beach. In 1968 she began taking photographs of the Pacific Ocean, a subject that would command her attention for the next decade.
She stopped painting and switched to graphite as a new and more precise medium.
This is the main iteration of the installation. The relationship between the image and the paper’s edge is key. Celmins has noted, “It occurred to me that the image and surface were interlocking with the picture plane so the work could invite one in and keep one out at the same time.” She usually prefers to have her drawings shown without mats to underscore the notion that they are physical objects rather than windows framing an illusion. The artist also repeatedly returns to the same subjects: “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 special experience.”
Letter, 1968, Collage and graphite on acrylic ground on paper.
Celmins here memorializes a letter from her mother, which she kept for two years before carefully rendering its envelope in graphite.
This work is a collage, an atypical approach for Celmins, who made the postage-stamp-sized drawings of clouds, a burning house, and other familiar motifs before she pasted them onto the sheet. These elements and the envelope embody her fascination with flatness and surface—qualities that pull our attention away from the work’s otherwise mesmerizing illusionism.
Celmins made three paintings of this lamp in her Venice Beach studio, completing each one rapidly over the course of a few days. The object appears animate, its two necks craned so that the bulbs seem to peer out at the viewer. Celmins had noticed how the lightbulbs resemble eyes: “I’m a great fan of looking, so that’s a great place to start.”
L. to r.: George Condo and Maurizio Cattelan; Joel Shapiro with his wife, Ellen Phelan.
Fred Eversley, who credits Vija with his becoming an artist.
L. to r.: Pat Steir and Vija Clemins; Donna De Salvo who recently retired from the Whitney after curating the Andy Warhol exhibit.
Left: Jonathan Bernham (President and Publisher, Harper Collins) with his husband Scott Rothkopf (Chief Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art).
Right: Ian Alteveer and Mrs. Rodica Seward, owner and president of the French auction house Tajan, which she bought in 2003.
Hayes Greenfield (Roy Lichtenstein’s former saxaphone teacher) and Eileen Costello (art historian).
Mikhail Nikolayevich Baryshnikov, nicknamed “Misha,” is a Soviet-Latvian born Russian and American dancer, choreographer, and actor.
He and Vija Celmins are compatriots of Latvia.
Eric Widing (Deputy Chairman Christie’s American), Misha Baryshnikov, and his wife, Lisa Rinehart.
L. to r.: Allison Rudnick, Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints at The Met; Joan Quinn with a painting that she owns and lent to the exhibition: Gun with hand #2, 1964; oil on canvas.
This is one of two paintings of guns which represents the first examples of Celmins’s use of photography rather than direct observation as the basis for her work.
Intrigued by a broken pistol left by a friend in her Venice Beach studio, the artist photographed her then boyfriend holding it. After printing a few of the images, she further cropped the sources with masking tape and studied gun magazines to understand how the smoke would take shape after firing.
In the center of the Gallery: Pencil, 1968-1970, wood, canvas, acrylic paint.
Alongside her paintings, Celmins made several sculptures in the mid-1960s that she characterized as having “fallen out of the picture plane.” These works also represent items from her studio—erasers and a pencil, for example—but are larger than life.
Three Pink Pearl Erasers, 1966–67, balsa wood, acrylic paint.
House #2, 1965, wood, cardboard, oil paint.
Celmins sought occasional relief from two-dimensional painting by creating sculptural works. She based her wood models on real buildings—and painted them with favorite motifs such as airplanes, trains, smoke, and clouds.
While Celmins acknowledges an interest in Surrealist artists such as Meret Oppenheim and René Magritte in these pieces, she was also inspired by Tony Berlant, a friend and fellow UCLA graduate student who was making assemblage sculptures of houses in the mid-1960s.
Aaron Fleishman, a Met Trustee, with Daniel Brodsky, the Met’s Chairman of the Board.
L. to r.: Clifford Ross and Mary Heilmann; Mary Heilmann and Pat Steir.
Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Museum of Modern Art, with her husband attorney Gregory Clarick.
MoMA has an extensive collection of works by Vija Celmins — many of which are in the Met Breuer exhibition,  including the drawing behind them, Moon Surface (Luna 9) #1, 1969.
While histories of the space race tend to laud the arrival of American astronauts in 1969, in February 1966, the Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 became the first unmanned ship to make a soft landing on the moon and soon thereafter began to transmit the first images of its surface and terrain. The aesthetics of the lunar landscapes are reflected in Vija’s works.
Martin Puryear and Steve Martin.
L. to r.: Steve Martin, an ardent collector, loaned his Vija Clemins to the show; Anne Stringfield and her husband Steve Martin.
Ian Alteveer has every reason to look happy at the end of the evening.
Be sure to see this exhibition which closes on February 12, 2020. And I’d buy a catalogue too.

All photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved. Contact JK here.

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