Vija Celmins

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Vija Celmins
Vija Celmiņa

(1938-10-25) October 25, 1938 (age 83)
EducationJohn Herron School of Art
Known forPainting, Graphic art, Printmaking
MovementAbstract, Minimalism, Photorealism
AwardsGuggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Carnegie Prize, MacArthur Fellowship

Vija Celmins (pronounced VEE-ya SELL-muns;[1] Latvian: Vija Celmiņa, pronounced TSEL-meen-ya) is a Latvian American visual artist best known for photo-realistic paintings and drawings of natural environments and phenomena such as the ocean, spider webs, star fields, and rocks.[2][3][4] Her earlier work included pop sculptures and monochromatic representational paintings. Based in New York City, she has been the subject of over forty solo exhibitions since 1965, and major retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.


Vija Celmiņa was born on October 25, 1938, in Riga, Latvia.[5] Upon the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940, during World War II, her parents fled with her and her older sister Inta[6] to Germany, then under the Nazi regime; after the end of the war, the family lived in a United Nations supported Latvian refugee camp in Esslingen am Neckar, Baden-Württemberg. In 1948, the Church World Service relocated the family to the United States, briefly in New York City, then in Indianapolis, Indiana. Sponsored by a local Lutheran church,[6] her father found work as a carpenter, and her mother in a hospital laundry.[7] Vija was ten, and spoke no English, which caused her to focus on drawing, leading her teachers to encourage further creativity and painting.[8]

In 1955, she entered the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, where she has said that for the first time in her life, she did not feel like an outsider.[7] In 1961 she won a Fellowship to attend a Summer session at Yale University, where she met Chuck Close and Brice Marden, who would remain close friends.[7] It was during this time she began to study Italian monotone still life painter Giorgio Morandi, and painted abstract works. In 1962 she graduated from Herron with a BFA, and moved to Venice, Los Angeles, to pursue an MFA at the University of California at Los Angeles, graduating in 1965. At UCLA, she enjoyed freedom, being far from her parents, leading to further artistic exploration.[7] She lived in Venice until 1980, painting and sculpting, and working as an instructor at the California State College, the University of California, Irvine and California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia.

In 1981, following an invitation to teach at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, she moved permanently to New York City, wanting to be closer to the artists and art that she liked. She also returned to painting, which she had abandoned for twelve years, working during that time mainly in pencil. She later switched to using woodcuts, and then to eraser and charcoal, and added printmaking to her repertory. Since that time, she has worked out of a cottage in Sag Harbor, New York, and a studio loft on Crosby Street in Soho, Manhattan. During the 1980s, she also taught at the Cooper Union and the Yale University School of Art.[9]


Working in California in the 1960s, Vija Celmins' early work, generally in photorealistic painting and pop-inspired sculpture, was representational. She recreated commonplace objects such as TVs, lamps, pencils, erasers and the painted monochrome reproductions of photographs.[10] A common underlying theme in the paintings was violence or conflict, such as war planes, handguns and riot imagery. A retrospective of the 1964–1966 work was organized by the Menil Collection in cooperation with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010.[11] She has cited Malcolm Morley and Jasper Johns as influences in this period.[12][13]

In the late 1960s through the 1970s, she abandoned painting, and focused on working in graphite pencil,[14] creating highly detailed photorealistic drawings, based on photographs of natural elements such as the ocean's or moon's surface, the insides of shells, and closeups of rocks.[15] Critics frequently compare her laborious approach to contemporaries Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter,[16] and she has cited Giorgio Morandi, a master of the pale grey still life, as a major influence.[14] These works also share with Richter's an apparent randomness and thus apparently dispassionate attitude. It is as if any photograph would do as a source for a painting, and the choice is apparently unimportant. This is of course not the case, but the work contains within it the impression that the image is chosen at random from an endless selection of possible alternative images of similar nature.[citation needed]

At the end of this period, from 1976 to 1983, Celmins also returned to sculpture in a way that incorporated her interest in photorealism. She produced a series of bronze cast, acrylic painted stones, exact replicas of individual stones she found along the Rio Grande in Northern New Mexico,[17] with eleven examples held at the MoMA (see photos).[18] By 1981, she returned to painting, from this point forward working also with woodcuts and printing, and substantially in charcoal with a wide variety of erasers - often exploring negative space, selectively removing darkness from images,[12] and achieving subtle control of grey tones.[9]

From the early 1980s forward, Celmins focused on the constellations, moon and oceans using these various techniques, a balance between the abstract and photorealism.[19] By 2000, she had begun to produce haunting and distinctive spider webs, again negative images in oil or charcoal, to much critical acclaim,[20][21] with particular note of her meticulous surface development and luminosity.[22] She has said that all these works are based on photographs, and she imparts substantial effort on the built-up surfaces of the images.[14] In a 1996 review of her 30-year retrospective at London's Institute of Contemporary Art, The Independent cited her as "American art's best-kept secret."[23]

Critics have often noted that Celmins' works since the late 1960s - the moon scapes, ocean surfaces, star fields, shells, and spider webs, often share the characteristic of not having a reference point: no horizon, depth of field, edge or landmarks to put them into context. The location, constellation, or scientific name are all unknown - there is no information imparted.[24][25][26]

From 2008, Celmins returned to objects and representative work, with paintings of maps and books, as well as many uses of small graphite tablets - hand held black boards.[9] She also produced series prints of her now well-known waves, spiderwebs, shells and desert floors, many of which were exhibited at the McKee Gallery in June 2010.[19][27][28] She recently released a new series of prints that includes both night sky and waves mezzotints. These prints were exhibited at the Matthew Marks Gallery in January, February, and March 2018[29] and the Senior & Shopmaker Gallery in February and March 2018.[30]


Celmins's works have been the subject of over forty solo exhibitions around the world since 1965, hundreds of group exhibitions. After her longtime dealer, McKee Gallery in New York, announced its closing in 2015, Celmins is currently represented by Matthew Marks Gallery.[1]


Celmins's works are held in the collections of over twenty public museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Baltimore Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Art, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, High Museum of Art, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX, Museum of Modern Art, New York, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Menil Collection, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.[31]

In 2005, a major collector of her work, real estate developer Edward R. Broida, donated 17 pieces, covering 40 years of her career, to the Museum of Modern Art, as part of an overall contribution valued at $50 million ($50,000,000). Especially noteworthy were the early and late paintings.[32]



  1. ^ a b Hilarie M. Sheets and Randy Kennedy (September 24, 2015); Changing Galleries New York Times.
  2. ^ "UCLA Hammer Gallery".
  3. ^ "National Gallery".
  4. ^ Phaidon Editors (2019). Great women artists. Phaidon Press. p. 94. ISBN 978-0714878775.
  5. ^ Dictionary of Women Artists Volume 1, p.377, By Delia Gaze, 1997.
  6. ^ a b "Indianapolis Star, Oct. 11, 2012 - Inta A. Celmins Obituary".
  8. ^ "Art21, Sep. 16, 2003 - Vija Celmins: Earliest Influences, Early Works, Interview".
  9. ^ a b c "The Brooklyn Rail, June 2010 - In Conversation: Vija Celmins with Phong Bui".
  10. ^ Knight, Christopher (December 21, 1993). "Los Angeles Times, Dec. 21, 1993 - ART REVIEW: The Profound Silence of Vija Celmins : MOCA retrospective, by CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT".
  11. ^ Sirmans, Franklin; White, Michelle (2010). Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964–1966. Houston: The Menil Collection. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-300-16612-5.
  12. ^ a b "Might Be Good, Issue 158, Dec. 3, 2010 - Interview: Vija Celmins, by Wendy Vogel".
  13. ^ McKenna, Kristine (July 27, 1990). "Los Angeles Times, Jul. 27, 1990 - ART REVIEWS : A Rare Show by Reclusive Vija Celmins, by KRISTINE McKENNA".
  14. ^ a b c "Tate Modern, Tate Papers, Issue 14, Oct. 2010 - Dust and Doubt: The Deserts and Galaxies of Vija Celmins, by Stephanie Straine".
  15. ^ "Tate Modern - Bio of Vija Celmins".
  16. ^ MoMA: Highlights Since 1980, by Rebecca Roberts, published in 2007, pp161.
  17. ^ Morgan, Susan, Los Angeles Times, 12 December 1993
  18. ^ "MoMA Collection - To Fix the Image in Memory by Vija Celmins".
  19. ^ a b Smith, Roberta (June 10, 2010). "New York Times, June 10, 2010 - Vija Celmins: 'New Paintings, Objects and Prints', By ROBERTA SMITH". The New York Times.
  20. ^ Glueck, Grace (November 1, 2002). "New York Times, Nov. 1, 2002 - ART REVIEW; With No Hidden Agenda, The Process Is the Point, By GRACE GLUECK". The New York Times.
  21. ^ "New Yorker, June 4, 2001 - DARK STAR: The intimate grandeur of Vija Celmins, BY PETER SCHJELDAHL".
  22. ^ Johnson, Ken (June 1, 2001). "New York Times, June 1, 2001 - ART IN REVIEW; Vija Celmins, By KEN JOHNSON". The New York Times.
  23. ^ Ingleby, Richard (December 13, 1996). "The Independent, Dec. 13, 1996 - VISUAL ARTS: Vija Celmins ICA, London, by RICHARD INGLEBY".
  24. ^ "Roswitha Haftmann Stiftung Foundation, Laudatio of Vija Celmins, 2009, by Hans-Joachim Müller".
  25. ^ "Whitney for Teachers, Discussion of Vija Celmins".
  26. ^ "PBS, ART21 - About Vija Celmins, from Art in the Twenty-First Century, 2003".
  27. ^ "McKee Gallery, 2010 Announcement of Vija Celmins Exhibit".
  28. ^ "ArtPremium – Vija Celmins, Entropic Void". ArtPremium. 2017-04-19. Retrieved 2018-05-03.
  29. ^ "Vija Celmins". Matthew Marks Gallery. 2018.
  30. ^ "Vija Celmins: Recent Prints". Archived from the original on February 28, 2018.
  31. ^ a b c d "McKee Gallery, Biography of Vija Celmins".
  32. ^ Vogel, Carol (October 12, 2005). "New York Times, Oct. 12, 2005 - The Modern Gets a Sizable Gift of Contemporary Art, By CAROL VOGEL". The New York Times.
  33. ^ a b c d "Carnegie Museum of Art - Biography of Vija Celmins".
  34. ^ "American Academy of Arts and Letters Awards Registry". Archived from the original on 2014-04-13.
  35. ^ Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation Awards 2000 : Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Vija Celmins, Luc Tuymans, Switzerland. OCLC 71341637.
  36. ^ "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 7, 2008 - Carnegie International a magnet for planners, art lovers, By Mary Thomas". May 7, 2008.
  37. ^ "Roswitha Haftmann Prizewinners".
  38. ^ "USA Projects, Board Fellow Vija Celmins, 2009".

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