PRINT October 1993


“ART IS STILL AND DEAD”: such is the frostbitten assessment Vija Celmins delivers in an interview published in 1978. In the few essays that have peeked in on Celmins’ enigmatic thirty-year career, it’s conspicuous how often the artist is quoted, and how eagerly writers turn to her biography (an early childhood in Latvia dodging World War II bombing raids, a pilgrimage west in the ’60s to feed her creative development on the Zen chum of the Venice Beach art scene). It’s as if, like a spirit called by a medium at a seance, the art can only speak through her. True, something like a clairvoyant’s emphatic monotone does characterize the tenor of her work, its prematurely gray palette and impassively photorealistic rendering, yet what she describes are the most easily recognizable objects and scenes: a seascape, a starry night, an airplane, a desk lamp, a fan. Taken as a whole, her imagery can be thought to comprise a kind of halting still life, a homey, unassuming congregation of standard cultural and natural showpieces. Only Celmins has replaced the handicraft and silverware with photographs and electrical appliances, the food and drink with oceans and galaxies.

Perhaps this kinship to the humble genre of still life explains why Celmins’ output has proven so elusive. Or maybe she just arrived in the art world at a bad time, falling through the discursive crack between the trenchantly Modernist and the self-consciously post-Modernist. Then again, it’s obvious Celmins intends her work to appear lost. The solitary objects and ageless, vacant terrains she depicts all share a location outside of time and place; the point of view her art most often assumes, looking down at the ground or up at the sky, suggests a traveler brought to a standstill, shaken loose from a sense of direction or destination. Celmins’ vision is spellbound, at once alert and paralyzed she peers at everyday reality through zombie eyes, her forms apprehended with shocking attentiveness even though they seem trapped beneath a layer of dust. The imagery feels buried alive, a breathing corpse. Which is how, for Celmins, it should be. “Still,” she says, as if her art were waiting to be aroused, brought to life. “And dead,” as if the life it once possessed had been relinquished forever.

Out and about in the material world, Celmins ends up capturing only what feels a little too out there. She typically presents objects laid flat against a neutral background (a blank wall, a clear sky), each pinned to the center of the pictorial field like a lab specimen. Even her many scenes of ocean surfaces, desert floors, and starscapes dispose of artful composition—they appear unescorted by moons, coastlines, trees, any finite shape suited to frame the vast beyond. Instead, Celmins pictures that beyond in specific, discrete patches, zooming in as if with a telescope, as if pointing a finger into these voids. (“Right there,” she exclaims to the groping viewer.) Displayed in clinical isolation, and aligned parallel to the picture plane, Celmins’ subjects vacillate between the voluminous illusionism of traditional landscapes and still lifes and the stenciled abstraction of maps and blueprints.

Celmins makes art like a detective, only she’s on the lookout for the undetectable, applying a mug-shot format to a restless universe that won’t be neatly itemized. Blunt and illustrational, her works beg to be identified at a glance, yet what’s depicted remains mostly hidden from view—her oceans and cosmoses have no edges to define them; they’re literally beyond representation. The spider’s web featured in a painting from 1992 epitomizes meticulous craftwork (suggesting Arachne at her spinning wheel, a fitting metaphor for Celmins’ mode of production), yet it too eludes objectification; a slow but constant work in progress, the web lacks stable form, an inside and outside. Both concrete and intangible, it is forever remote, something to look at only, that even the slightest touch would ruin.

Celmins’ predilection for flighty objects extends back to her earliest paintings of household accessories, from 1964. Take Hot Plate: it’s rotated so that the cord juts out toward the viewer, as if it were waiting to be clutched, yet the viewer’s eye reaches instead for what is too hot to handle, the fire-red coils that recede at an oblique angle. The lamp in Lamp #1 directly faces its audience, but is switched off—its two bulbs return the spectator’s gaze with a compelling though empty promise, like a pair of unblinking yet distant eyes, a dead man’s vacant stare. What’s more, none of these appliances is in fact self-contained. The electrical cord is emphasized in each painting: it snakes lyrically across a blank background in Fan, threatens to poke through the painting’s surface in Hot Plate, and makes an otherwise sturdy shelf buckle under its negligible weight in Lamp #1. To function, Celmins’ hardware depends upon the sprawling network of energies these umbilical cords plug into, as each appliance betokens much larger forces, shapeless and mostly unseen—the electricity consumed at one end; the wind, heat, and light generated at the other.

Such tokens as Celmins’ art struggles to preserve all seem as if they’re about to vanish right before our eyes, like murky reflections seen in hand-cupped water, the imagery waiting to seep through the picture’s framed space, its arrested time, to return to an elapsing, amorphous field of ceaseless mobility. From her pictures of distant bombs exploding to her exacting sculptures of drafting pencils and erasers, she often inventories what gets lost through use, what melts or disperses into oblivion. Hence the heavy emptiness felt in her work, as if it bore resemblances not so much to things as to the marks left by their disintegration.

This at least describes the disappearing act Celmins pulls in Pistol and Gun with Hand #1, both from 1964. In each, an anonymous hand reaches in from the painting’s right edge to transform a gun—poof!—from an object into an event, a gunshot. Celmins details the action’s unfolding (the shooter’s clenched wrist, the barrel kicking upward, smoke filling the air), yet the act never resolves: the suspenseful moment remains suspended, as the fired bullet travels a void, unanchored by a protagonist who takes aim or an antagonist who’s targeted. Four drawings of World War II aircraft, from 1966, form a squadron of Flying Dutchmen: these planes have no end in sight to their mission; Celmins provides no indication whether they’re heading into battle or home from it. The dramas she stages never feature actors, never offer motives or consequences, only the vehicles through which action passes. (Consider her hot plate with nothing warming atop it, or her lamp with no reading material nearby.) What her art ends up surveying is an unending trail of stepping stones, traveling innumerable days between stations.

It’s an ever-changing yet changeless landscape Celmins paints, whether her referents belong to history, present-day culture, faraway galaxies, or the deep blue sea. Even the most familiar sights she tours have had the stamp of human import subtracted from them. In fact, by rummaging the far side of heroic achievement, averting her eyes from the roar of the crowd, Celmins discovers a seamless alliance between the opposite ends of the artmaking spectrum, harmonizing the denigrated layabouts of the still life and the trumpeted epiphanies of the sublime. Here representation is assigned tasks it’s either under- or overqualified to carry out, braving both backstage trivia (pencils, erasers, lamps) and things so powerful and immense (modern warfare, barren deserts) as to be beyond comprehension.

In this game of hide-and-seek, Celmins ups the stakes considerably with the shy presence in each artwork of her vigilant hand, a labor that also combines the impossible and the mundane, that appears strenuous yet without peaks, like a radio SOS. With all her formidable drafting skills, Celmins favors the modest role of reporter over that of inventor; whether or not they’re directly copied from photographs, her images always look as much secondhand as handmade. It’s obvious how much coaching Celmins has received from photography—she sweats over her imagery’s every inch, bathing each scene in global surprise. Even the objects portrayed often put in a pitch for surface flatness; the crisscrossing strands of Web, for example, enwrap the picture plane more tightly than the oceanscapes, star fields, et al. Yet with its threadwork fanning out from a single point, Web also plots a system of linear perspective, conducting a connect-the-dots lesson on how to conjure vivid spatial illusion. Celmins’ surfaces never manage to report just the facts, to transcribe only the immediate dialogue of pencil lead and pigment worked into paper and canvas. The surfaces always drop out, as the imagery vows to disclose far more than it can possibly make good on.

It’s on the foundation of this formal give’-and-take that Celmins stages her ashen phantasmagoria. Announcing itself with a step into the literal space of the viewer, only then to step slowly back, the work beckons toward an unspecified destination behind the framed surface, toward a glimpse of the known world’s unmapped outskirts. Entering the picture is like boarding a lost train of thought, wandering clear of spotlit landmarks and relevant deeds, into a twilight zone where things so ordinary they pass without comment rendezvous with the unspeakable. And at the end of the line, there hangs a sense of deliverance and tranquility at once feared and desired. Celmins’ rock-a-bye oceans and twinkle-twinkle starscapes vibrate faintly with the echoes of high-seas adventure and daring space-missions, of risk and discovery. But mostly these calm waters and clear skies evoke primal forms of escape and finality: they promise reassurance, blanketing, submersion, as well as helplessness, abandonment, loss—at once untold contentment and ultimate desolation.

Such extremes comprise two sides of the same premonition, one that haunts all of Celmins’ work. Stare again into the hypnotizing spiral of Web: there, too, images of a simple domicile and an objectless space, a nest and a void, are superimposed. As she scouts hidden portals through which second nature opens upon the supernatural, Celmins pushes her realism into surrealism. Her six-foot-tall Comb, 1969–70, is in fact cloned from a 1952 still life by René Magritte. Celmins’ homage to the Belgian quizmaster is fitting: the two share the same easel format, a frank, textbooklike style, a delight in arranging blind dates between the banal and the poetic. But more important, she seems to have picked up from Magritte his knack for provoking visual desire, the way he thinly disguises in his apparently mild-mannered imagery a passionate unwillingness to settle for appearances, baiting the viewer to look beyond the given toward things not yet attained, or that are unattainable, period.

Celmins doesn’t need to tunnel far back through art history to find a community sympathetic to her concerns: the art world she spent her formative years in brimmed with high formalism’s prehistoric vistas and Pop art’s sardonic sales pitches, monuments to the sublime and the mundane. Both styles influenced Celmins, but she also kept both at a distance. Her art has a touch of Pop’s friendly display tactics, as well as its nature morte pall. But to Celmins’ eye, more fetching than Pop’s paeans to the new were formalism’s declarations of the now. The majority of her early contemporaries, after all, aligned their practices for and against the most celebrated scribe of such declarations, Barnett Newman. Moreover, it was Newman’s intention, as it was Magritte’s, to whet an insatiable visual hunger; indeed, rather than just hint at a realm beyond appearances, he wanted to give that realm flesh.

It’s possible to detect a mild family resemblance between Celmins’ work and Newman’s. Both artists stand watch over terrains teeming with events yet to unfold, grooming wide-open fields free of just about any compositional demarcations, including horizon lines, fields in which nothing is settled and anything seems possible. Similar to the pulsing stars in Celmins’ skies and the waves sweeping her ocean surfaces, the vertical zips in Newman’s work scan his pictures like the laterally moving arm of a radar screen. And lording over the work of both are the twin specters of baptism and apocalypse, thematic threads loosely tying Celmins’ interest in essentials (earth, air, water, fire) and weapons of mass destruction to the Old Testament quotes Newman used to title his burst-of-light paintings: Genesis—The Break, Abraham, The Command, Moment, and so on.

But Newman omits anything that might distract from his canvases’ urgency and resoluteness. His pictures demand to be entered with a bold step; backbone isn’t just implied but literally pictured, as his hard-edge zips mimic the probing eye movement of someone standing fully erect, facing straight ahead, feet firmly planted. Celmins, though, often provides no ground to stand on: her zero-gravity space shots make it impossible to tell right-side-up from upside-down or sideways. Not only is the viewer cut adrift before such scenes; rather than the light of dawn, what penetrates her dark skies is old, travel-weary light, likely emanating from worlds long ago deceased. When Celmins does touch down on planet earth, it’s usually not firm, as in her oceans; when it is firm, as in her deserts, she doesn’t lift her head all the way up. And even when she looks straight ahead, her view still feels strait-jacketed, as in her images of planes aloft and pistols being fired, where the vantage point is restrained from doing what seems called for, turning left or right, to see what’s come before and what happens next.

Each of Newman’s paintings wholly contains not only the field but the precise moment of the action. What he depicts is the resounding daybreak of creation, the advent of Time, the first and therefore only Moment, seized but not yet spent. Celmins also portrays the momentary, her imagery’s every detail registered with the suddenness of a camera flash. But there’s no sense of an absolute beginning in her work: as in her perpetually swaying seas, she instead envisions time unspooling to infinity, without start or end; it’s shown to be an indomitable force that shapes experience rather than vice versa. She describes moments that seem impossible to hold onto; they both pass too quickly and linger too long. Like the smoke exhaled from her gun’s just-emptied chamber, they instantly slip into time’s boundless continuum only to float there, still moving, resonating, even as they hollow out. Time isn’t captured but flows through Celmins’ art: invested with an enormous amount of thought and labor, her moments, though on the verge of expiration, still feel absorbing. Celmins gets lost in her work; counting waves, tracking stars, she devotes her eye, her time, to limitless endeavors. She enters time only to lose track of it.

One painting—Freeway, 1966—does at first appear to possess completely both its field of action and that action’s consequences, to have a beginning and an end. Here Celmins is inside a car racing down a miraculously uncrowded Southern California freeway, looking straight out the windshield at a canvas-wide horizon line and the road’s vanishing point. In this image, Celmins should at last know where she’s at, and where she’s going. But she doesn’t. Her point of view sits not behind the wheel but in the passenger’s seat; she’s just along for the ride. And the car doesn’t really speed down the road; it faces a low-hanging sun that bleaches out sky and pavement and turns everything else—other cars, buildings, a distant overpass—into flat, silhouetted shapes that rush toward and press against the windshield, the squeezed scene suggesting a diorama erected atop the prosceniumlike dashboard. Finally, if at the end of this road lies Celmins’ destiny, it is a nameless, unforeseeable one—or so say the freeway signs and billboards angled toward her, which are all painted pitch black.

Celmins’ subjects may solicit our attention, but none ever looks back at us. Her scenes announce themselves only to withdraw, not just because their time has passed, but because they themselves don’t seem to realize that they’re over, completed. They hide their faces as if preoccupied, nagged by questions so far unanswered. Celmins’ images look to the heavens, they look for what the tide will bring in; always they confront uncertain fates—not just their own but, in such cases as her bombers and guns, the fates they have yet to visit on others. It’s as if her images were shielded by a one-way mirror, the course of events in which they’re embroiled foreclosed to us, their tragedies and fortunes at once unreachable and compelling. Like memoirs long kept secret, like letters lost forever in the mail, like a suicide note discovered too late, Celmins’ urgent messages seem addressed to no one in particular, delivered belatedly to the living in general with a postmark from the other side. We stare intently, with anticipation and concern, upon the quiet, unburied remains of each image, as if it were Sleeping Beauty.

With pencil and paintbrush in hand, Celmins flicks her wrist back and forth, creates a world, and waves goodbye.

Lane Relyea is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.

“Vija Celmins,” a retrospective of the artist’s work organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and curated by Judith Tannenbaum, is currently traveling. It opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in September, and will remain there until 29 November. It can also be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, from 19 December to 6 February 1994.