Vija Celmins

Newport Harbor Art Museum

Vija Celmins’ fifteen year retrospective is characterized by an almost obsessively meditative point of view in intimate renderings of an airless, utterly silent world.

The early ’70s graphite drawings of the surface of the Pacific Ocean for which she is most known find their antecedents in all-gray oil paintings of awkward goose-neck lamps and TV sets and in freeway views executed in the mid-1960s. Occasional detours appear—like the six-foot Comb sculpture plucked whole from Magritte’s 1952 painting, Personal Values, and deposited in the gallery—but even these rather empty exercises contain seeds that are more fully developed in the later drawings. The Pencil and three Pink Pearl Eraser sculptures of 1966–67 announce, through their gargantuan scale, the importance that graphite marking and erasure will assume in the drawings of the subsequent ten year period.

Physical images (TV, photographs, stamps) and the images produced by memories (World War II bombers, a zeppelin, the destruction of Hiroshima) are the source for nearly all of Celmins’ work. These dissect the nature of imagery itself, and their exquisite rendering makes tangible the tangible qualities of images. For instance, just as the “surface” of the ocean is constant but never really definable, so the drawings of it fluctuate between gritty, abstract graphite markings and continuous pictured image. The inaccessible-yet-real quality is heightened in the choice of lunar landscapes, desert pebbles, and views of distant galaxies.

The work is least successful when it directly addresses Surrealist concepts—as in Comb or the fur-lined House # 1 —and, perhaps appropriately, is most successful when the ideas are not self-consciously applied but unself-consciously integrated.

Almost all of the early paintings are tonalities of gray and their subjects are sources of light —a lamp, a glowing heater, a TV set, the headlights of a truck. In the mid-’60s, the focus shifted, first in paintings. then exclusively in drawings, to images formed by reflected light, that is, photographs. In Untitled (Double Moon Surface), 1969, reflected light is layered upon itself, figuratively, as a drawing of a photograph of the moon, and literally, as a black-and-white overlapped image. The glare of the desert sun on intimate patches of earth, the dappled light of ocean swells, the pinpoint stars of galactic clusters become vehicles for intensely focused, private contemplation—vehicles that have too often been misread as everything from plain Pop art to standard photorealism.

Christopher Knight