Critics’ Picks

Vija Celmins, Burning Man, 1966, oil on canvas, 20 x 22 1/2”.

Vija Celmins, Burning Man, 1966, oil on canvas, 20 x 22 1/2”.


Vija Celmins

The Menil Collection
1533 Sul Ross Street
November 19, 2010–February 20, 2011

This past summer, at McKee Gallery in New York, Vija Celmins exhibited her most recent body of work—tablets of brushed gray wood fashioned to look like the handheld chalkboards that were their real-life counterparts. Placing the found and the made side by side, and blurring the line between the real and the imagined, Celmins invited the viewer to look closer. A show up now, titled “Vija Celmins: Television and Other Disasters 1964–1966,” is a strong prequel to the McKee exhibition. Displaying a slightly different gray tablet, this exhibition features some of her earliest muted paintings, works that take their subjects from pictures torn from magazines, images from television, and photographs from books about World War II.

In the mid-1960s Celmins was not exactly looking to Pop or Photorealism, styles that were popular at the time. Instead, she created an entirely divergent practice, one that was deeply committed to painting. The brushstrokes in these works are invisible, almost as if the pieces had been blown onto the canvas, yet the density of the making is consciously not concealed. These are paintings, first and foremost, albeit restrained ones.

The most striking works on view are three paintings that depict an outstretched arm holding a gun that has just gone off. Each image shows the arm from a slightly different perspective. The works are hung on opposing walls, ricocheting off one another in the smaller, more realized gallery in the exhibition; this arrangement gives the impression that the gunshot is ringing out around the room, moving from an image of a figure engulfed in orange flames to a grisaille rendering of a cover of Time featuring the Watts riots. It’s not that these paintings are about the disasters of the 1960s and the media’s representation of them; rather, they are about the artist’s studied practice—and, in turn, the spectator’s careful contemplation of their making.