In Vija Celmins’ Work, Looking is a Multisensory Experience

Vija Celmins, 'To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI,' 1977–82; eleven stones and eleven made objects (bronze and acrylic paint). (© Vija Celmins; Photo: Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

Vija Celmins’ lessons on how to be an artist, based on her own 80 years of life experience, might look something like this:

  1. Reduce your practice to its most simple elements: looking and making.
  2. Do it over and over and over again.

Of course there’s more to it than that, and over the past 57 years (if we begin her career in 1962, her first year in graduate school at UCLA), Celmins has proved that an incredible variety of work—oil paintings, graphite drawings, cast and painted objects, charcoal drawings and prints—depicting an incredible variety of things—stars, waves, spiderwebs, clouds, studio objects, airplanes, the desert floor—can emerge from that deceptively simple premise.

Vija Celmins, 'Blackboard Tableau #1,' 2007–10; three found tablets and seven made objects (wood, acrylic paint, alkyd oil, pastel, string, paper, and graphite).
Vija Celmins, 'Blackboard Tableau #1,' 2007–10; three found tablets and seven made objects (wood, acrylic paint, alkyd oil, pastel, string, paper, and graphite). (© Vija Celmins; Photo: Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

To Fix the Image in Memory, SFMOMA’s retrospective of the Riga-born, New York-based artist (her first in North America in over 25 years), collects examples of all of the above into semi-chronological and thematic groupings on the museum’s fourth floor. It’s a far less splashy show than we might expect from SFMOMA these days, and that comes as relief, especially when what one needs to take in Celmins’ work is ample time and space for looking.

Looking—really looking—at Celmins’ work isn’t a purely visual experience. Heater, one of her early pared-down paintings of objects in her 1960s Venice, California studio, puts an electric space heater in the center of a gray canvas. The only vibrant color comes from the orange glow at the heater’s center, so warm and matter-of-fact it half convinces viewers the image, too, must emanate heat.

Vija Celmins, 'Heater,' 1964.
Vija Celmins, 'Heater,' 1964. (© Vija Celmins; Photo: Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

Elsewhere, in a gallery full of her ocean drawings, the repetition of graphite on paper, and Celmins’ precise gestures, threaten to lull viewers into a false supposition that once you’ve seen one ocean drawing, you’ve seen them all. That is, until Untitled (Ocean with Cross #1). By this time, the show has already trained viewers to stop and read any accompanying wall text for delicious details. (How else would you learn that Comb, her 75-inch-tall homage to René Magritte, was scaled to the height of Celmins’ then-husband?)

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The block of text next to Untitled (Ocean with Cross #1) is both illuminating and incriminating, ushering in a whole-body sensation of curiosity and guilt. “I had so many people that wanted the oceans, and they missed the point,” the quote from Celmins reads. “They just rushed past them. So I decided I was going to give them one with a big cross through it.”

Vija Celmins, 'Untitled (Ocean),' 1977.
Vija Celmins, 'Untitled (Ocean),' 1977. (© Vija Celmins; Photo: Don Ross, courtesy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

A big cross? What big cross? Only after several moments of concentrated scanning—an approximation of slow art viewing—did I finally see the two delicate graphite lines traversing the drawing from corner to corner, crossing diagonally at its center. This discovery was so exhilarating I looked around a bit wildly to see if I could share it with anyone. (Pro tip: Bring a buddy to this show to more fully enjoy revelations such as these.)

But the element that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that looking is a physical, emotional and visual process, is the titular piece, To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI. In it, Celmins displays a group of 22 stones—11 of them real, found in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico; and 11 of them created by Celmins, cast in bronze and meticulously painted to match their originals. Displayed on a pedestal under a vitrine, To Fix the Image feels like a magic trick, or a spot-the-difference game made three dimensional.

Vija Celmins in her studio, 2018.
Vija Celmins in her studio, 2018. (Photo: Eric McNatt; Courtesy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

Celmins’ work doesn’t demand viewers stealthily circle her arrangement of stones as if they’re on safari (or get dangerously close, while squinting, to other cast, painted and “redescribed” objects), that’s simply what happens. Because in its quietness, its delicacy and commitment, her work becomes a personal challenge: Are you willing to feel the heat? Are you careful enough to spot the X? Can you spend just one fraction of the time and energy Celmins herself has put into her work to focus on the slow and rewarding process of visual contemplation? And then: Can you carry that sentiment with you beyond the museum walls?

'To Fix the Image in Memory' is on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through March 31, 2019. Details here

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