TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 2019

BEGINNING TO UNDERSTAND

Vija Celmins, Blackboard Tableau #12, 2007–15, leather, acrylic, alkyd oil, and pastel on wood, found tablet, each panel 11 × 8 1⁄2".

CAN’T WE JUST START OVER? Make a new beginning and do it all again, only better? This sentiment, echoed in some form in so many conversations today, is—as most students of art history will know—as much one of modernism’s motivating myths as it is a refrain of contemporary malaise. The fantasy of a fresh start is fundamental to how innumerable artists have imagined what it means to make art at all, and, by extension, how it might promise to make the world more like one they would wish to inhabit. The powerful image of the blank slate is so persistent in part because it is adaptable to almost any situation, era, or agenda. Time and again, however, it fails to deliver on its ostensible promises. Ultimately, a completely new beginning proves as elusive as the avant-gardist fictions of originality and invention with which its fantasy is so deeply intertwined. This doesn’t mean starting anew is a useless or ignoble goal. Just because you know you’ll likely fail doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; that’s what it means to commit to the quixotic, utopian cause of art, right?

Vija Celmins, Heater, 1964, oil on canvas, 47 5⁄8 × 48".

These are some of the many thoughts Vija Celmins’s recent Blackboard Tableaus evoke, made as they quite literally are of blank slates. Pieces such as Blackboard Tableau #12, 2007–15, typically consist of paired objects: a child’s antique miniature blackboard and a copy of that item, which the artist has had fabricated (by a furniture-maker friend) and then herself painted to look as much like the ready-made object as possible. Displayed together, these found slates and their handmade twins invite close looking and inspire their viewers to attempt to distinguish original from reproduction. The Blackboard Tableaus quickly transcend our marveling at the artist’s mimetic skills, however, and compel us to consider the central paradox they embody: that the blank slate, presented here both literally and figuratively, is anything but blank. Celmins’s painstaking reproduction of the blackboard’s surface—its scratches and its particular shade of cloudy gray, remnants of decades of writing and erasing chalk—constitute the majority of her artistic labor in these pieces. Her careful attention to remaking the patina of the found object underscores the proposition that even when one wishes to wipe the slate clean, traces of the past inevitably remain. The beginning is always already occupied by the inescapable presence of history. Try as we might, there is no tabula rasa here.

Vija Celmins, Comb, 1969–70, lacquer and epoxy on wood, 75 × 14 5⁄8 × 2 3⁄8".

The urge to begin anew is one of the primary engines of Celmins’s limpid artistic practice, which spans the past five decades and media ranging from painting and drawing to sculpture and printmaking. As early as the chronological beginning of her career, in 1964, Celmins imagined that to begin meant to start over. Setting up her first studio in Los Angeles after graduate school, she sought to set her education and preconceptions aside, in order to paint objects close at hand from direct observation. She later described this first body of work: “I thought I would sit down without all my theories and aesthetics . . . to start in a more primitive place with just my eyes and my hand.”1 Of course, the desire to get away from theory, and back to the “more primitive” eye and hand, is itself highly theory-laden, and Celmins’s works from this period suggest, as do the Blackboard Tableaus, that to begin at all is to engage with the past. Signal pieces from this time, such as Envelope and Hot Plate, both 1964, are naturalistic depictions of humble, quotidian objects, but their fluent paint-handling, limited palette, and shallow pictorial space also evoke art-historical precedents. The work of Morandi, Manet, and, further back, Velázquez, looms large, haunting and inspiring these canvases. Again, as much as the artist would like to paint simple objects in her studio simply, Celmins’s early canvases also evince strategies closer to home, namely those of an emergent, deadpan American Pop. Though accomplished through radically different means (and intentions), Celmins’s 1964 Heater is cousin to another object on a studio floor that an artist transformed into art that year: Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (Soap Pads). The fact that these works are figurative at all, and depict anonymously produced industrial objects to boot, brings them together, especially when they are viewed against the backdrop of the immediate tradition of gestural abstraction from which their makers were both, in their own ways, distancing themselves.

The more time Celmins spends on a work, the less it reveals its madeness, and the more her handiwork is submerged.

Vija Celmins’s Comb, 1969–70, drying in her studio, Los Angeles, 1969.

Celmins’s stated desire to put her theories aside and Warhol’s infamous wish to “be a machine” betray almost oppositional affects and ideas of artistic subjectivity—Celmins sought the immersive depth of close looking, while Warhol denied its very possibility. But both participate in the larger cultural tactics of artistic self-negation that define some of the best American art of the 1960s and ’70s. Tired of the overblown claims to individual expression that permeated the discourse of the previous generation, many artists emerging in the wake of AbEx sought to circumvent the personal and expressionist dimensions of artmaking altogether. One strategy for doing so was to limit one’s subjective decision-making to as few moves as possible, to subvert one’s personal taste and bury evidence of one’s artistic hand.2 Anti-invention was an ideal. This context helped establish the parameters of Celmins’s practice and has strongly informed it ever since. In her earliest works, this strategy included, more specifically, restricting her color palette, centering her imagery (as opposed to artfully composing it), and painting single objects chosen for their convenience rather than symbolic content. Within a few short years, Celmins had radicalized this removal further, using photographic sources as the models for her drawings and paintings and subsuming the facture of her earliest paintings into slick, uniform surfaces. Technically, she was making images in much the same way—her process remained, fundamentally, that of observational rendering—but now the objects she was painting “from life” were photographs. From the mid- to late ’60s, Celmins preferred anonymous black-and-white imagery taken from newspapers and magazines. In painting from photographs, Celmins relieved herself of the burden of inventing what to paint, for once she settled on an image, her work was constrained to something like copying. She eagerly sought such limits. “The image is just a structure I don’t have to think about.”3 With the model chosen, Celmins could focus on what she was most interested in: the slow, manual work of making the object.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Ocean Steps #2), 1973, graphite on acrylic ground on paper, 11 3⁄4 × 98 3⁄8".

LABOR IS A BIG PART—perhaps the primary part—of Celmins’s creative process, and her works across artistic media share the characteristic of being highly wrought, even if almost invisibly so. A painting can take years for her to complete, involving dozens of campaigns of applying paint and scraping it off to start again. Ironically, the more time Celmins spends on a work, the less it reveals its madeness, and the more her handiwork is submerged. This is, of course, part of the point; Celmins has evocatively described her desire for her paintings to be as smooth as Formica.4 There is an airtight quality to Celmins’s art, which can be both unsettling and compelling. Take Comb, 1969–70: At seventy-seven inches high, this painted sculpture enlarges its model from handheld to human size but otherwise looks completely unchanged. It is as if this exaggeration of scale has happened without human intervention, by magic. By using lacquer in the sculpture—which settles under gravity during the drying process to erase any manual brushwork—the artist creates a glassy surface that entirely masks her touch. Should we need reminding of the central tensions at stake in Celmins’s approach, the sculpture itself brings home the thesis, with the word HANDMADE spelled out at the comb’s top. Some of the power of this work in particular—and of Celmins’s oeuvre as a whole—comes from the frisson of knowing that it was made by hand but finding scant evidence of that fact before us. (This distinguishes her objects from the countless examples of contemporary artwork today that incorporate digital fabrication. In these, lack of facture signifies something completely different.) This tension of the present but invisible hand is Celmins’s central contribution in art’s long and extended dialogue with mechanical reproduction. Her work transmits the energy of its human origin, but it doesn’t resolve into the specific “expressive” subjectivity of a particular individual. The human behind the hand remains present, but mute and aspiring to anonymity.

Vija Celmins, Hot Plate, 1964, oil on canvas, 25 × 35".

In much art of Celmins’s generation, as emphasis on the artist’s hand (and by proxy, her persona) receded, materials came to the fore. In Celmins’s case, this is perhaps most evident in the large number of works on paper she made from the ’70s on, after she began an extended hiatus from painting. In interviews, Celmins has repeatedly described her Galaxy and Ocean drawings in terms of the married physicality of paper and graphite, rather than of the particular imagery. Her interests are primarily material; she notes that these works “came out of loving the blackness of the pencil,” and that in them, she wanted to let “the material be the material.”5 Untitled (Ocean Steps #2), 1973, is a tour de force of this impulse and exploration. Here, across a suite of identically sized sheets of paper, Celmins serially rendered the same photographic images of a rippled ocean surface—beginning again seven times—using pencils of increasing softness (and hence darkness) as she moved from left to right. Systematically working her way through the graphite grading scale—the taxonomy of H’s and B’s that denotes relative hardness—Celmins creates a portrait of her materials. This is a work about the how of making rather than the what of the image. Like an old-school photographer experimenting with the zone system—or a designer adjusting a contrast slider in Photoshop—Celmins seems to test how the image holds up at different tonalities. Importantly, each of these varying tonalities is predetermined and ready-made: a function of the divisions of graphite available in commercial pencils, rather than of her own artistic taste.

Though you may find yourself asking which of her sky paintings is a better painting, you rarely ask which is a better image.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Double Desert), 1974, graphite on acrylic ground on paper, 12 5⁄8 × 24 1⁄8".

Immaculate, hands-off technique and systematic, nonaesthetic material exploration are two strategies of anti-invention central to Celmins’s practice, but so too are copying and repetition.6 For Celmins, copies are never perfect, just as repetition never yields precisely the same results. The slippage, however minor, between two nearly identical images is the space the artist has explored her entire career, and undoubtedly accounts, at least in part, for her interest in working with the same image more than once, in repeatedly starting over. Works such as Untitled (Double Desert) and Untitled (Double Coma Berenices), both 1974, exemplify her impulse to close the gaps between original and copy. In each, paired drawings on a single sheet of paper depict the same image at two sizes. (The larger drawing is almost, though not exactly, double the surface area of the smaller.) This presentation not only has the effect of letting us appraise the image at two different scales—it also argues for the fidelity of Celmins’s commitment to a dispassionate reproduction of the source image. If, in a single image of a nonspecific referent, such as a desert floor or a starry sky, the artist were to fudge the rendering of a specific detail, we would never know. By doubling the image, however, Celmins holds herself, and encourages us to hold her, to a standard of maximum faithfulness to the source image, proving to herself as much as to her viewers the rigor with which she expunges personal, expressive, and arbitrary decision-making from her process. In the end, the energy Celmins spends closing the gap between original and copy leaves a paradoxical remainder: Ultimately, because they are discernibly handmade (while one always recognizes a photographic source in Celmins’s work, one never mistakes her drawings for photographs), the gap between source and artwork emphasizes a lurking human presence.

Vija Celmins, To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI, 1977–82, acrylic paint on eleven bronze objects, eleven stones, dimensions variable.

This strategy becomes even more radicalized in To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI, 1977–82, a signal work consisting of eleven painted cast bronzes presented alongside their original stone “models.” Here, it is as if Celmins has taken the initial assignment of Western aesthetics—to imitate nature—literally. As in her subsequent Blackboard Tableaus, Celmins eliminates any conditionality in her dedication to quasi-mechanical reproduction that might linger in the exercise of the doubled drawings. That is, while one might be able to make two drawings based on the same photograph look enough like each other to convey the idea of an erased personal style, presenting your copy alongside the ready-made model itself sets the bar even higher. In these works, we no longer have to take Celmins’s word for it—that is, we no longer have to accept the rhetoric of the dispassionate photographic style in which she renders things—since the model is there to inspect as well.

Vija Celmins, Suspended Plane, 1966, oil on canvas, 18 × 28".

CELMINS’S IMAGERY is as notable as the ways in which she uses it, and similarly focused and cool. At first, Celmins worked from a relatively diverse selection of images, encompassing photographs of warplanes and fiery disasters, but beginning in the late ’60s, she limited herself to a much narrower range of subjects, including the parched desert floor, the ocean, the starry sky, and spiderwebs. It is significant that all these forms can be said to be unauthored; they are found in nature, not made by human hands. Celmins rarely says much about her imagery. She even once described it as “almost nothing.”7 But by saying the image is almost nothing, Celmins is, of course, saying quite a lot. This almost-nothingness is a means to an end. Her discrete images of this iconography, while technically based on different photographs, are strikingly generic: The stars and webs are all so similar as to make their aesthetic variety irrelevant. While they may, strictly speaking, be individual, unique images, they might as well not be. Though you may find yourself asking which of her sky paintings is a better painting, you rarely ask which is a better image. This extreme and functional interchangeability is another dimension of her overall artistic program of limits and anti-invention. By deciding more than forty years ago that she would draw imagery from a few select things, Celmins effectively freed herself from having to spend any time or energy agonizing over what to paint. Similarly, by choosing imagery that is almost exclusively visually nonhierarchical (with detail and incident spread equally across the image frame), Celmins circumvents relational composition. Two of the central decisions in exercising aesthetic taste—what to paint and how to compose it—have been headed off at the pass.8

Vija Celmins, Burning Man, 1968, oil on canvas, 20 × 22 1⁄2".

Further, a loose system seems to connect the photographs from which she chooses to work. Celmins’s source images—which recall her explorations of the gradation scale of commercially available graphite in work Untitled (Ocean Steps #2)—catalogue the visual possibilities afforded, and determined, by the technology of the camera. Beyond the obvious fact that her work is based on photographic images, its specific typology reflects the range of focal lengths of a camera lens as it zooms out from close-up to infinity: The Webs are the close-ups, the Deserts and Oceans explore the expanding mid-range, and the Galaxies and Night Skies depict the infinitely distant. Indeed, some of the Night Skies are based on images sent back to Earth by the Hubble Space Telescope, a camera fitted with a huge lens capable of capturing some of the most remote objects possible. (A more recent image, Shell, 2009–10, presents the opposite end of the spectrum, depicting its subject in extreme close-up, in a detail only available through a macro lens.) Even in using natural imagery, Celmins exhibits supreme reserve. We see the world—and, indeed, the whole universe, small to large—through the technical mediation of a cool camera eye.

Celmins’s imagery is coolly hands-off, but it is far from lifeless.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Double Coma Berenices), 1974, graphite on acrylic ground on paper, 12 1⁄2 × 24".

While Celmins’s steadfast commitment to strategies of anti-invention comes out of, and participates in, specific artistic discourses that emerged in the ’60s, the long view of her career allows us to see that her unique contribution has been to probe issues of origins and beginnings. In her work, renewal and self-erasure are complementary, not mutually exclusive. That is, for Celmins, to start over is not to replace one agenda with another—in effect, to heroically or hubristically impose one’s individual will on a new vision of the future, as many avant-gardists strove to do—so much as it is to imagine a state of mind (or of body, even) without an identity or expressive agenda. By minimizing the artist’s hand, Celmins deemphasizes the individual but not the human per se. As a result, she displaces the model of the expressive subject, whose valorization has so often been at the center of artistic production, with something altogether more modest and appealing. Celmins’s imagery is coolly hands-off, but it is far from lifeless (a characteristic ascribed, without prejudice, to Warhol). Rather, in form, subject matter, and technical execution, Celmins evokes the smallness, and potentially even the wonder, of a person in the face of larger forces. The artist’s imagery of oceans and galaxies, specks of dirt and grains of sand, the thin filaments of spiderwebs and the surface of an eggshell dotted with so many pores indeed constitutes an iconography of the infinite; however, her artistic treatment of these subjects refuses recourse to the expressivity or pathos that typically attends the sublime in art.

As her practice enters its second half-century, Celmins has brought these issues to the fore even more clearly, introducing a new literalism into her work—remaking physical blank slates that stand for, among other things, figurative blank slates. This literalism poignantly recalls her earliest work, the observational still lifes that launched her career. If the paintings of a heater, hot plate, and lamp lying about her studio revealed a twenty-six-year-old artist asking what it means to fashion a personal practice unbound by “theories and aesthetics,” what does a mature master’s work like Darwin, 2008–10, tell us? Here, in a small oil painting depicting a splayed-out early edition of the famed naturalist’s On the Origin of Species, we see Celmins circling around even bigger ideas. The work raises the question not of what it means to be an artist, but of what it means to be a human. Back to the beginning, indeed.

“Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory,” curated by Gary Garrels and Ian Alteveer, is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The exhibition is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through March 31; travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, May 4–August 4; and the Met Breuer, New York, September 24, 2019–January 12, 2020.

Jordan Kantor is an artist and a Professor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He is a founder of no place press. 

NOTES

1. Vija Celmins, “Interview with Vija Celmins,” in Coutts Contemporary Art Awards 2000: Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Vija Celmins, Luc Tuymans (Zurich: Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation, 2000), 38, quoted in Gary Garrels, “To Fix an Image in Memory,” in Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 13–14.

2. My understanding of artistic strategies of self-erasure is indebted to the writings (and teachings) of Yve-Alain Bois. For his comments on the particular manifestations of this tendency in postwar American art, see Yve-Alain Bois, “Abstraction, 1910–1925: Eight Statements,” October, no. 143 (Winter 2013): 16.

3. Vija Celmins: Drawing as Thinking: Extracts from Conversations and Notebooks, exh. cat. (London: Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 1999), n.p., as quoted in Stephanie Straine, “Dust and Doubt: The Deserts and Galaxies of Vija Celmins,” in Tate Papers, Autumn 2010, accessed 28 November 2018, www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/14/dust-and-doubt-the-deserts-and-galaxies-of-vija-celmins.

4. Celmins discussed Formica in “In Conversation: Vija Celmins with Phong Bui,” Brooklyn Rail, June 3, 2010, brooklynrail.org/2010/06/art/vija-celmins-with-phong-bui. As an aside, the emergence of this aspect of Celmins’s work might be productively considered in relation to the brief flourish of California Finish Fetish, which coincided with an increased suppression of the visual evidence of making in her paintings and sculptures.

5. Vija Celmins, “Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close,” in Vija Celmins, ed. William S. Bartman (New York: A.R.T. Press, 1992), 36, 45.

6. For more on repetition in Celmins’s work, see Briony Fer, “Exercises in Abstraction,” in Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, 195–201.

7. Celmins, “Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close,” 45.

8. Celmins on removing composition or intention: “I liked the fact that they were something outside of myself. And I did love the fact that I didn’t have to make up anything because I was trying to find something that could still be art after removing obvious composition and obvious intention.” Celmins, “Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close,” 17.