PRINT March 1974

Vija Celmins

WHEN ONE LOOKS AT AN artist’s portrayal of the sea, one is put in mind of what is called a marine, that category of subject matter dealing with an expanse of water so animated by light, space, texture, tone, and movement as to transmit a salty atmosphere of its own. Since the historical rise of landscape, various artists have been sensitized to the dramaturgy of the aquatic—the possibilities, not only of an unstable, but a shifting and translucent horizon—as the setting of a particular mode. To depict a liquid body, whether inviting to contemplate and travel upon or not, is to treat of sensations that are at once fluid, open, and equivocal, with hidden, deepening densities. A landlubber’s sense of form may get lost in them.

The pencil seascapes of Vija Celmins, who lives on a Pacific beach at Venice, California, do not summon up one’s conditioned responses to the marine genre, though they accurately convey most of the features associated with it. This is not because they lack a skyline—Monet’s Nymphéas do well enough without one—nor because they are drained of color—Marin’s lively aquarelles sometimes have little more. In these drawings, to be sure, the ocean palpably has all the waves, crevices, dips, rises, ripples,shadows, and crests one would expect. Moreover, they heave together with gentle conviction. To perceive and render water is a classically demanding problem and Celmins solves it by copying photographs, so that her ocean looks much more like an ocean of record than many of the images of it in her predecessors. Still, it is as if it were a mock-up image, fabricated out of some indistinguishable but evidently fine-grained matter that stands in for the sea. Perish the thought of it ever sparkling or fuming. It is hard to recall any other artist who does this, unless it be Magritte. Thinking of him clarifies the backdrop qualities of these seascapes, but not well enough to explain their suspended veracity. From a painting to a photograph, one moves from an invented world to a visual transcription of an instant in the life of a world that existed. Celmins’ drawings seem to confound such a distinction and carry on, trapped between the two states of being. These low swells, breathed upon by a wind that has agitated their upper currents, have been realized by a mind backing away from the weather of outer perception. The surface attributes of water seem to ride over and then sink into what is really at stake—the thousands of blended pencil strokes and shadings, their flowing roughage of grays. Perhaps this is a way of saying that the Celmins copy appears very much an end in itself, utterly dependent on photographic vision, but in no sense an homage to, or finally even, a quote from it.

I will admit that in a conversation with this sensible artist, nothing was quite said to account for this effect, or rather, the definite spell that it casts. You are led into the ambiguous space of her waters, pebbled grounds, and star-flecked nocturnes, almost lulled by it hypnotically, through the cunning of graphite. Additionally, she is concerned with illusions of a nature entirely void of any tangent with our needs, our social experiences, and our history. This is how things had looked and will look, one imagines, before we came and after we are gone, the sight of them not mattering. This choice of iconography—though, of course, it amounts to more than that: a diminishing of our egos—is brought off very simply by a selection of photographic images lacking any internal evidence to place or date them. With what rigor she has excluded from her vistas any momentary episode, and even much of the air and the natural light of the kind we know. These absences unsettle because they have been noted by the reliable witness of photography. Such a medium heightens the imaginative grip of her desolating subjects by making them materially credible, gotten, if at some remove, from “out there.” It is a perception of the world that seems to have slowed and thickened, not the appearances of nature, but its processes in time. There is a sweet oppressiveness and an unavailing beauty in the random, motiveless change she pictures. Here, Celmins is almost anti-photographic because photographs have a tendency to give anything they materialize a vintage, and to inscribe it in history. On the same page Van Deren Coke recently published a photograph of water taken by Celmins with the drawing from it. The comparison suddenly assures us that the pencil has its own aims, and is far less interested in the wetness and the wrinkles of the scene than the lens (which had relatively small choice, and less presumption in the matter). Pervasiveness and modulation of tone, distilled as patiently, it seems, as her phenomena were shaped, takes over, is all. What she wants the lens to do, I think, is substantiate, with seemingly impartial fluidity, an archaic view of sensation.

To this end, it helps that we have no idea of scale in these intimately small drawings—no idea of our scale in relation to the motif’s or the motif’s to anything that might adjoin it. And by eliminating scale references, she blurs distance. The eye may be close to those (possibly lunar) stones, all wonderfully relieved by their long shadows on the ground, but the stones and her nebulae, unthinkable thousands of light years away, are often roughly the same size. Her neat, unassuming borders on the sheet vignette the chaff and debris that are her subjects and have well contained the inertia that has strewn them about; all this, however, without locating us in any particular way, whether we are presumably looking up, down, or laterally into the field of vision. Yet I like precisely the understatement of this limbo, the feeling that one can take it as a netherworld or as an actual view by an almost casual blink of mental focus.

At times, though, the artist varies her format. At the Whitney Museum recently, she presented seascapes thinned to a long horizontal band, and therefore so unusual a shape that it called attention to itself. One of these had so much unemployed space above and beneath, that the sea came to be profiled as some new, queer object in its own right. At the distance required to see it whole, the piece could resemble, say, the trunk of a tree. Another drawing had six identical segments, flush against each other and varying only in their rightward, regular darkening of values. Giving over each successive panel to the next softer lead was like taking many photos of the same spot with a progressively smaller exposure. But these self-conscious and external ideas, no matter how clever, make her imagery less plausible, and therefore less enchanting. They impel us to ask, rather than encourage us to forget, how the artist conceives the subject. Such a question, under the circumstances, is intrusive. It reminds us of distracting, all too mundane matters like Surrealism or serial art, peripheral to that velvet intensity of her touch, and the refined chaos that precipitates through it.

Max Kozloff