Vija Celmins

1938 | Riga, Latvia
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American painter, sculptor and draughtswoman.

Vija Celmins is an exceptionally well-rounded artist, working in the fields of painting, sculpture, drawing, and etching. She studied at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis from 1955 to 1962 and at the University of California in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1965. There, she gave up expressionism to start painting objects found around her studio – a lamp, a toaster, a fan, a hot plate. She also stopped using colour in favour of an almost monochromatic form of painting in which tones of grey predominated, a form reminiscent of Giorgio Morandi’s very minimalistic colour palette. Her interest in “two-dimensionality” led her to collect pictures from World War II, a period she experienced as a child in Latvia and later, when her family fled Soviet troops at the end of 1944. She started painting military aircraft, both American and German, some of them in flames and from then on, death and destruction became a central theme in her work. In the late 60s, she occasionally created objects showing her interest in Magritte and reminiscent of pop art aesthetics – giant pencils and rubbers (inspired by Alain Robbe-Grillet’s works), or a comb larger than herself. Throughout this time, she continued to use war imagery in her drawings. In 1968, she put aside painting for many years in favour of drawing and etching. She also created a small number of sculptures, most notably To Fix the Image in Memory (1977-1982), which consisted of 11 stones collected in the desert and painted bronze copies of these.

Her art underwent a radical transformation with her first drawings of the sea, which led her to reduce, simplify and standardise her subjects. The image of the sea, as well as other subjects V. Celmins would later come to choose – the desert, the sky at night – are all invested with an archetypal romantic connotation that remains present throughout her work, but which she partially erases via a process of control, compression, and transformation. The first exhibition of her drawings was held in 1973 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and was followed by a retrospective at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in California. It was on this occasion that V. Celmins met David and Renee McKee and joined their New York gallery. She left California for good in 1981 to move to New York, where she gradually returned to painting. Her work has been the focus of several solo exhibitions, particularly at the Centre Pompidou, where a selection of some 70 drawings made her more widely known to the public. Thanks to the generosity of Edward R. Broida, The New York Museum of Modern Art houses the world’s largest collection of her works.

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Jonas Storsve

From the Dictionnaire universel des créatrices
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
Vija  Celmins — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Vija Celmins, Desert, 1975, lithograph on paper, 46.9 x 56 x 21 cm, © Tate

Vija  Celmins — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Vija Celmins, Eggs, 1964, oil on canvas, 61.6 x 89.5 cm, © Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Vija  Celmins — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Vija Celmins, Ocean, 1975, lithograph on paper, 31.7 x 42 cm, © Tate

Vija  Celmins — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Vija Celmins, Suspended Plane, 1966, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 71.1 cm, 18 x 28 in., © Collection SFMOMA, San Francisco

Vija  Celmins — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Vija Celmins, To Fix the Image in Memory, 1977-82, stones and painted bronze, eleven pairs, variable dimensions, © MoMA

Vija  Celmins — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Web 1), 2001, mezzotint on paper, 17.78 x 19.68 cm, private collection

Vija  Celmins — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Large Night Sky), 2016, manière noire sur papier Hahnemühle blanc brilliant, 105 x 91 cm, © Matthew Marks Gallery

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