‘I Just Look, and Paint’

Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory

an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, December 15, 2018–March 31, 2019; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, May 4–August 4, 2019; and the Met Breuer, New York City, September 24, 2019–January 12, 2020
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Gary Garrels. SFMoMA/Yale University Press, 271 pp., $60.00

Vija Celmins: Selected Prints

an exhibition at the Senior and Shopmaker Gallery, New York City, September 12–November 2, 2019

Vija Celmins: Ocean Prints

an exhibition at the Matthew Marks Gallery, New York City, September 13–October 26, 2019
Untitled (Ocean) by Vija Celmins
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Vija Celmins: Untitled (Ocean), 12 3/4 x 17 1/2 inches, 1970

The title work in Vija Celmins’s bewitching retrospective, To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI (1977–1982), is a loose collection of small stones like those found on windowsills and porches the world over, the kinds of things people pick up out of mild interest and then never quite get rid of. Because there is nothing remarkable about any of the stones beyond the fact that they are sitting on a plinth in a museum, it takes a moment to figure out why exactly they feel so strange. And then you see it: each rock has a twin of the same size and shape, bearing the same black specks and tan freckles in exactly the same places. Eleven of the twenty-two stones were picked up by the artist while walking in the desert; the other eleven are cast bronze, painted to replicate each random detail of their models. In a nod to Duchamp, Celmins calls them “readymades” and “mades.”

The piece is a trick, but also something more. To solve the puzzle—can you spot the imitation?—you have to apply the same intense concentration the artist did. Human brains are good at recognizing faces and symbols and certain types of motion, but they aren’t built to recall the specific arrangement of thousands of individual specks on a rock. The title itself is a tease: To Fix the Image in Memory lures us into committing energy and interest to something we are fated to forget. But the artwork leaves us with a lasting sense of possibility, an awareness of the largely unnoticed richness of the world.

Celmins has been an admired artist for more than fifty years, and for most of that time critics have struggled to explain the elusive poignancy and staying power of her work. In an art world that rewards noisy assertion and the avid annexation of wall space, her work is thoughtful, modest in scale, mostly black-and-white. And while much contemporary art prides itself on being difficult, even opaque, Celmins’s paintings and drawings of night skies and oceans are eye-pleasing and generous in a way that keeps them broadly appealing, even as they contend with weighty questions about the mechanics and consequences of representation. All this makes her work hard to encompass in the current language of art. Looking at her pairings of apparently identical rocks, the word that floats to mind is not “simulacrum” but “sublime.”

This ambitious retrospective, on view at the Met Breuer through January 12, charts her career through some 120 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures arrayed over two floors of the museum. (Organized by Gary Garrels of SFMoMA and Ian Alteveer at the Met, it was previously seen in San Francisco and Toronto.) The beautifully produced catalog provides a thorough overview of…

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