Vija Celmins, “To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI,” 1977–82. (Matthew Marks Gallery/The Museum of Modern Art/©Vija Celmins)
Art and architecture critic

You will find yourself walking back and forth through the mesmerizing Vija Celmins exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, returning to earlier work to recollect details and then moving on with wonder and expectation to see how themes and ideas develop and metamorphize. You will also move toward the drawings and paintings to scrutinize their miraculous surfaces, smooth, inscrutable and cold as fruit from the icebox, before backing away to comprehend their totality.

Vija Celmins in her studio. (Eric McNatt/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

Why is this Latvian-born American genius who is just now receiving her first comprehensive U.S. exhibition in more than a quarter-century, not spoken of in the same breath as Rothko, Rauschenberg, LeWitt or Warhol?

“Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory” includes almost 150 works and will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario in May and to the Met Breuer in New York in September. It covers the artist’s career from early works she made in Los Angeles in the 1960s through the paintings and drawings for which she is best known — meticulous, monochromatic renderings of waves, the night sky and the natural clutter of the desert floor. And it continues up to the current moment, in which her career of more than 50 years continues to unfold with conceptual surprises and delights.

Vija Celmins, “Heater,” 1964; oil on canvas. (Matthew Marks Gallery/Whitney Museum of American Art/©Vija Clemins)

“Envelope,” 1964; oil on canvas. (Matthew Marks Gallery/©Vija Celmins)

For decades, Celmins has been the most heroically humble of artists, quietly, idiosyncratically and patiently toiling apart from the dominant trends and ideologies of the art world while gathering up the sublime through devotion to ordinary craft.

Celmins, 80, was born just before the Second World War, and she spent several years in refugee camps in Germany before moving to the United States and settling in Indiana with her family.

Her early paintings, which have the poetic reserve and melancholy of Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes, focused on objects in her studio — a space heater, an electric hot plate and an oscillating fan, all rendered in gray tones. Although they seem to float in space, their shadows are carefully rendered, as if these affirmative details of traditional representation can’t be sundered from the objects themselves, which are otherwise abstracted from the world. There’s also a touch of humor: In the paintings of the heater and the hot plate, there’s a touch of red to suggest their heating power, perhaps a riposte to the bright colors of Pop Art and the “cool” aesthetic of Los Angeles art in the 1960s.

Vija Celmins, “Night Sky #16,” 2000–01; oil on linen mounted on wood. (Matthew Marks Gallery/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/©Vija Celmins)

“Desert Surface #1,” 1991; oil on wood. (Private Collection/Matthew Marks Gallery/©Vija Celmins)

Celmins’s early career also included “disaster” works, images based on photographs of doomed military planes, cars on fire and the mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb. These are sometimes contained within a trompe l’oeil conceit, a drawing of a photograph ripped from a magazine, its curled edges casting a slight shadow, or a crease on its rumpled surface reflecting a touch of light. The image thus seems to represent the collecting impulse of the artist as much as the thing depicted in the photograph itself. After the 1960s, the disaster theme mostly disappears (a late sculpture of a gun is an exception), but the focus on building up images of trompe l’oeil deceptive power while conscientiously undermining their illusion remains an essential recurring gesture.

Vija Celmins, “House #2,” 1965; wood, cardboard and oil paint. (Matthew Marks Gallery/©Vija Celmins)

All of that is obviously true, and why Celmins’s work has been critically acclaimed, why it is considered complex and intellectually substantial, and why it regularly appears in larger exhibitions that survey the trajectory of 20th-century art or major themes in problems of representation. But the exhibition also undermines the critical consensus, revealing not just the consistency with which Celmins has probed the meaning of representation, but also how much subject matter — real things in the real world — in fact matters to her.

“She does not intend a spiritual message,” declares one of the catalogue essays for the show. But it can’t be an accident that almost without exception, Celmins has always preferred to make images of things that most people find spiritually meaningful. There’s a good reason she hasn’t focused on visually dense and repetitive images of, say, snakes squirming in a pit or trash moldering in heaps. At some level, Celmins’s images of waves or the night sky aren’t just studies in technique and distancing; they are gracious offerings, allowing the viewer the basic pleasure of looking at things that are hypnotic, infinite and emotionally consoling.

In a survey of a great artist’s work, any single object may contain the whole of the artist’s oeuvre, while the sum of the works is greater than any of its parts. There are powerful examples of synecdoche throughout this show: for instance, Celmins’s 1965 “World War II Puzzle Toy,” a handheld game with a war scene rendered on a circular surface under a transparent dome. On the disturbing base are little cavities and inside the globe, little balls. If the game weren’t in a museum, you might move it slightly up and down, forward and back, trying to make the balls fall into place. The game of skill becomes a metaphor for the game of balance and comprehension implicit in many of Celmins’s other paintings and drawings.

If you stand close to her 2009-2010 “Globe” — a terrestrial globe, hand-drawn on paper and wood and as light as a feather — you can use your breath to make it move slightly in the air. It counterbalances the dense earthiness of Celmins’s 1977-1982 “To Fix the Image in Memory I-XI,” a collection of painted, cast bronze “stones,” identical to real ones the artist found in the desert. Both the paper “Globe” and the small bronze cast stones are tantalizing and beautiful, and taken together they suggest the heroic side of her heroic humility. Celmins is determined to participate, on her own terms and without the in-your-face bravado of many male artists, in the project of world-making, the life-affirming hubris of the artist who will challenge God or the gods as a creator. She will remake the whole Earth as a gossamer thing susceptible to the lightest currents of air, and the smallest rubble of the Earth, stones from a riverbed, as microcosms of the entire universe.

Vija Celmins, “Web #1,” 1998; charcoal on paper. (Tate Modern, London/Matthew Marks Gallery/©Vija Celmins)

Celmins’s “Globe” comes late in the show, and it is near a Richard Serra installation that can’t be moved and so functions as a distracting side chapel to the main event. The contrast between Serra’s thrown masses of gray lead, heaped on the floor, and Celmins’s thrillingly delicate globe is an accidental allegory not just of how the art world works, but also of how most institutions and social groups work: Heaviness, assertiveness, the sweep of the arm and the thrust of the self always win the day. But I had little patience for the Serra and started working my way back through the Celmins exhibition to a room of charcoal drawings and paintings of spider webs, which were beautiful on the first encounter but now seemed even lighter yet more profound.

Of course, Celmins would be attracted to spider webs — for their power to attract, their implicit homage to work, their delicacy and their mortal power to trap and fix things in space. In these works, as in almost all the others, she makes it clear that these images are mediated, by hints of blurriness and fogginess that suggest the distortions of a lens. But it seems to me now that Celmins does this not to destroy the illusion, or to reiterate a tired and oft-trod lesson about resisting the blandishments of transparent representation. She retains these things as a means of escape, a way out of her images of the world, because otherwise we would stay there forever, fixed like the fly waiting for its annihilation.

Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory Through March 31 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through March 31.