Physical reality is at the core of Vija Celmins’s art. Based on careful observation and executed with meticulous detail, her work is inspired by perceptual experiences. The surfaces of her paintings and drawings are composed of thousands of individual strokes and gestures. By divorcing her subjects from their narrative contexts or physical surroundings, she creates highly detailed compositions that simultaneously seem abstract.
Born in Riga, Latvia, Celmins and her family fled war-torn Europe to settle in Indiana in 1948. While studying at John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, and later at the University of California, Los Angeles, Celmins explored a variety of styles. Abstract Expressionism was in vogue, and in an interview she admits to spending a couple of years trying to make her brush strokes “meaningful.” Celmins could not reconcile the emphasis on gestural action with the stillness of the canvas. “I started pulling back into myself and painting what I was seeing,” she said. While at UCLA, she found inspiration in the everyday objects in her studio—a hot plate, a desk lamp, a fan, and a heater. She began painting with detailed realism, but with a minimum of color, using tonal gradations of gray. Isolated on the canvas, the subjects take on a haunting anthropomorphic character; they seem to be portraits as much as still lifes. Celmins’s early works came to be associated with the Minimalist painters of the 1960s, because her dispassionate, precise approach reflects their aversion to emotional engagement.
Whether through oil paint, charcoal or pencil drawing, printmaking, or sculpture, Celmins’s work is dedicated to exploring natural forms. Often derived from photographs that lack horizon lines and other orienting cues, her works comprise such subjects as night skies, desert landscapes, and ocean surfaces, empty of human presence and extending past the frame into eternity. Celmins is fascinated by spider webs, and has explored their intricate structures in her more recent work.
Vija Celmins interviewed by Chuck Close at her New York loft on September 26 and 27, 1991, 5.