‘Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory’
“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,” Susan Tallman writes: “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.’
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 Celmins’s life and artistic development—her early childhood in Latvia when it was less a nation-state than a geopolitical chew toy yanked between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich; subsequent years as a refugee when her family fled to Germany, arriving during the final onslaught of Allied bombing; her later upbringing and education in Indiana; a critical few weeks at the Yale Summer School of Art and Music in 1961 that convinced her to be a painter; her decades as an artist in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, and in New York ever since. One of the catalog highlights is a compilation of interviews with the artist; these are revealing as much for what is not said as for what is. Celmins discusses life events and working methods with clarity, charm, and humor. She acknowledges other artists who have had an influence on her: Willem de Kooning for his redefining of what you could do in a two-dimensional space; Giorgio Morandi for what you could do with a small space and a reduced palette. But on larger metaphysical questions she is mum. ‘I don’t mind talking about making work,’ she told the sculptor Ken Price. ‘What it is supposed to mean is what I can’t talk about.'”
For more information, please visit metmuseum.org.
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