Vija Celmins' austerity plan

  • by Sura Wood
  • Tuesday December 18, 2018
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Vija Celmins, "Suspended Plane" (1966), oil on canvas; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Vija Celmins, "Suspended Plane" (1966), oil on canvas; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Vija Celmins is an obsessive, technically astonishing artist, and from all appearances, a very patient one. Patience and a rigorous attentiveness to detail are also required for visitors to "To Fix the Image in Memory," SFMOMA's huge new retrospective of 140 works that spans 50 years of her paintings, drawings, prints and objects. Suffice it say, being in a hurry at this particular exhibition just won't do.

Not a disciple of any movement or trend, this cerebral artist, who's more focused on material than subject, has gone her own way since the start. Born in Latvia and currently based in New York, Celmins fled her native country when she was five years old, after the Soviets invaded, and moved to the U.S. She began her career in Southern California in the 1960s, which is where the show, organized chronologically and loosely by body of work, begins. She has said she started from a dead stop, shedding the theories and aesthetics of her training, focusing instead on using her eyes and hand to document what she saw, free of manipulation. Removing herself and external socio-political issues from her practice, she sought a straightforward exploration of materials and structure, free of illusion and manipulation. But of course, that's easier said than done.

Some results of this austerity plan, paintings of mundane objects that occupied her Spartan concrete studio, are featured in the first gallery. Among them: a space heater whose heating element glows orange in a sea of battleship gray (the latter a hue she would return to again and again), a portable fan, and two depictions of handguns, recently fired judging from the puffs of smoke surrounding the barrel. (Both are slyly titled "Gun With Hand.") The works in this group could be mistaken for a series of well-executed illustrations, but one can't help suspecting they're freighted with hidden motives despite her declarations to the contrary.

Celmins excels at sculpture, a highlight of the show and a medium that engages her deadpan humor. An oversized, six-foot-tall tortoise shell comb scaled to the height of her then-husband (not a good fit for your average toiletries case) is an homage to Magritte's "Les Valeurs Personnelles" (1952). Originally carved at a lumberyard and lacquered, it's propped up against a wall near a trio of immense Pink Pearl (painted balsa wood) erasers for undoing those big mistakes. Along with the supersized pencil on view, they're perfect for the literary giant in the family.

Vija Celmins, House #2 (1965), wood, cardboard, and oil paint; private collection. Photo: Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery  

Celmins soon moved on to basing drawings and paintings on news clippings of war and disasters that reminded her of the "soot and bombs" of her youth. An alert, elephant-gray rhino senses danger in tall grasses; a catastrophic forest fire rages; an aircraft is engulfed in flames; and a B-26 WWII bomber is suspended, apparently motionless, mid-air (1965). A searing image of a man on fire ("Burning Man," 1968) running away from a blazing car wreck lodges itself in the mind and doesn't let go. It would be her last work in vivid color, which was, she concluded, "really gross, too spatial, too violent." The exteriors of two surrealistic sculptures of small houses, modeled on actual buildings, are painted with pictures of clouds, recalling Magritte's famous wine bottles, except for the imagery of explosions. One of the mini-dwellings has its roof removed, exposing interior walls lined with fur. It may be a cliché, but Celmins' early work, displayed in these opening galleries, really is more interesting.

There are at least a dozen graphite drawings of photographs taken of the ocean at Venice Beach. They're nothing short of amazing. Starting in the late 1960s, they were the central focus of her work for the next decade, a period when she left painting behind. With a light grid over the paper, she would work her way from the lower right-hand corner to the upper left, never succumbing to the charms of an eraser. The effect is uncanny; each successive drawing (and it's difficult to believe one is looking at a drawing rather than photograph) plays with subtle shifts of light, tone, shading and meaning.

It was on a fortuitous trip to New Mexico and Arizona that Celmins collected the river stones that comprise "To Fix the Image in Memory I-XI" (1977-82), the piece that gives the show its name. She recalls tossing the stones on a table — 11 found, 11 made — and arranging them until they formed a mini-constellation. She then cast them in bronze and painted them, an exercise that brought her back to painting.

At times, the exhibition can feel interminable, with room after room filled with multiple permutations of expanses, from oceans and deserts to a seemingly infinite number of graphite/acrylic renderings of night skies, whose black voids are interrupted by bursts of white and the occasional beam of light from an exploding star or meteor shower. It's like a never-ending story that appears to climax, only to continue. But this is where patience and intense concentration come into play. That may be a big "ask" in an age when ideas flash by at lightning speed, unexamined. Perhaps there's an academic imperative for the inclusion of so many works, but couldn't five slightly different images of night skies or moonscapes make the same point as 20?

Still, for those who persist, there are rewarding moments of dissonance and perfection, like "Desert Surface #1," a painting of a parched block of wood, cracked and cratered by the sun. A bronzed gun resting on top of a child's desk gives one pause, while in a gallery that seems like it could be the last, two speckled, irregularly shaped stones wait in a glass case. They could be a pair of abandoned dinosaur eggs about to hatch; and then what?

Through March 31.