New York

Vija Celmins

David McKee, Inc.

Despite its dour, reserved appearance I have come to understand Vija Celmins’ work as celebratory, as an intense, specific recreation of the joys of seeing. The graphite-on-paper drawings, painted cast-bronze rocks, and prints of this show confirm my feeling. The drawings, views in various scopes of phenomena in outer space, extend Celmins’ concerns of the last decade or so. Products of protracted, pointillist labor, they radiate the energies they ostensibly depict. The painted bronzes, each shown paired with a found rock which it exactingly duplicates, bring sight back to earth in an abrupt reversal of gaze. In Celmins’ hands the indistinct, mundane rocks assume the grandeur of the unimaginably faraway constellations, while their close physical origins reinforce the seamlessness of art and life in her work. These are Celmins’ first three-dimensional works in a long time, They particularize and make manifest her desert drawings of the ’70s. And their collective title, To Fix the Image in Memory, can also be taken as a statement of purpose for all of Celmins’ mature work.

Some of the prints break new ground too. Besides an ocean view and a spectacular gridded star scene called Strata, a 25-plate composite, Celmins produced three paper pieces that each juxtapose two sets of images and are each the products of two different printing methods. In Jupiter Moon—White Constellation a mezzotint is situated above an etching. The two remaining pieces, each made up of an aquatint print and a soft-ground etching, depart from Celmins’ long-standing subjects. A tall-masted ship sits above a star field in Alliance, while Constellation-Uccello brings together a dark view of outer space with a view of a goblet in plan, drawn after the Italian Renaissance artist’s version. In their relative spareness and revealing legibility, both the ship and the goblet demonstrate Celmins’ beautiful touch; the willingness they suggest to introduce less densely rendered, more schematic, and ultimately more personal objects into her work may foreshadow a new direction.

No doubt Celmins’ twenty-year stay in Los Angeles affected her vision, but she had no kin among the artists there. By age, training, and technique she is part of a generation, now in its forties, that includes such artists as Chuck Close, Joe Zucker, Nancy Graves, John Torreano, and Jennifer Bartlett. All have developed a personal style from a pointillist method, a commonality of treatment overlooked to date. As a group, these are the artists responsible for reintroducing deliberately imaginative imagery to the discourse of high art in the wake of Minimalism. Celmins’ significance among them is no less for her insistent hermeticism.

Richard Armstrong