Democracy Dies in Darkness

Museums | Perspective

Some of the most substantial and rewarding art of the last half-century

September 7, 2018 at 9:00 AM

Vija Celmins’s “Envelope,” 1964, oil on canvas. (Vija Celmins/Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery/Private Collection)

A curious thing happens when you encounter the work of Vija Celmins in a museum. The Latvian-born American artist is often included in exhibitions that survey ideas or periods or stylistic or geographic affinities among artists. And when you see her art in these contexts, it may seem a slightly odd fit, close but not quite germane to the theme of the exhibition. And yet, at the same time, it is almost certainly the best thing in the show. Celmins, who will turn 80 in October, has consistently produced some of the most substantial, rewarding and emotionally fraught art of the last half-century, yet she never fits into the usual art narratives.

Good for her, and good for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for helping to mount the first North American retrospective of her work in a quarter-century. It is difficult to believe that an artist of Celmins’s stature — who has made work so original, so minutely attentive to the visual world and so fraught with cultural significance — has waited so long for a major survey of her career. But that is, perhaps, the curse of the truly independent artist.

“She is an outlier, no doubt about it,” says Gary Garrels, senior curator at the Modern in San Francisco, who organized the exhibition with Ian Alteveer, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the exhibit will be seen in 2019. Celmins’s work has evolved over the years, and now she is famous for a series of paintings that explore the undulations of water and the night sky in minute detail. In the 1960s and ’70s, she often worked in a somber monochrome, painting images she clipped from newspapers, often focused on military themes or destruction. She also painted everyday objects found in her studio, a hot plate or an electric fan, with a dispassionate sense of quiet that recalls the still lifes of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi.

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But even when she was doing things that other artists were doing — appropriating newspaper imagery or painting in a hyper-realistic, trompe l’oeil style — she wasn’t doing it quite like other artists. Her work, Garrels says, “isn’t easily categorized. It isn’t minimal, it isn’t really conceptual even though it has a conceptual edge, and although process is very important, it isn’t processed based. It doesn’t fit into any of the shorthand categories.”

Vija Celmins, right, and artist Carrie Mae Weems at an event at MOMA in New York in 2017. (Lars Niki/Getty Images for the Museum of Modern Art)

Celmins has also been geographically evasive during a period when the labels “New York” and “Los Angeles” seemed to define very different aesthetics and emotional valences. The artist was born in Latvia just before the beginning of the Second World War, and she spent her early years with her family in refugee camps in Germany. She grew up in Indiana, and moved to California in 1962 and then to New York City in the early 1980s. While she was working in Los Angeles, her art wasn’t quite colorful enough, and lacked the polish and industrial sheen that seemed to define L.A. artists of the time; and in New York, Celmins’s commitment to painting and making images of things found in the world must have seemed slightly retrograde. So her life has been rich in displacement and dissonance, political, cultural and continental.

Can an artist who works slowly, who doesn’t fit into neat categories, who is always slightly at odds with the current moment be considered influential? Celmins is widely admired, though perhaps more among artists, curators and critics than the general public. Garrels says the challenge of organizing the show was eased by the passion of those who collect her work.

“They love her work. They love living with it. They admire it. They have high regard for her as an artist,” Garrels says, and most of the collectors were enthusiastic about lending it. The devotion to Celmins is intense, now perhaps more than ever, because her values as an artist are so at odds with larger currents in the art world. She makes intimate work at a time when size and spectacle are of the moment. And her work is persistently and daringly sincere, at a time when irony is the dominant mode of expression.

If there is a revolution to come in contemporary art, there is really only one way for it to go, which is back to a set of basic values, substantial ideas and a recommitment to visual expression. And if that happens, Celmins will be seen as one of the prescient, foundational figures of the new age.

“Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory” opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Dec. 15. For more information, visit sfmoma.org.

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Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at The Post since 1999, first as classical music critic, then as culture critic.

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