New York

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Falling Star), 2016, oil on canvas, 18 × 13 1/8".

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Falling Star), 2016, oil on canvas, 18 × 13 1/8".

Vija Celmins

Matthew Marks Gallery

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Falling Star), 2016, oil on canvas, 18 × 13 1/8".

In college, I kept a postcard of a Vija Celmins’s graphite wavescape taped to my door. In part, I missed the ocean, but it was also a reminder that the things you love should be done well, and with a care that might even border on obsession. (It’s no surprise to learn that a copy of painter Ad Reinhardt’s 1953 article “Twelve Rules for a New Academy,” with its disciplined promotion of “pure” painting and disavowal of expression, is pinned to Celmins’s studio wall.) And at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s inaugural downtown exhibition in 2015, Celmins’s stark, realist painting of a heater glowing red on a gray ground, which she made in graduate school at University of California, Los Angeles, in 1964, was my favorite work. That canvas referenced a hybrid Pop/Minimalism, humble conditions (an object from her studio), burning ambition, and Manet’s reinvention of the still life all at once. Since then, Celmins has steadily, quietly, made a name for herself as an artist who paints and draws with extraordinary precision, continually returning to imagery of patterned perfection found in nature: water, sky, desert, spiderwebs.

The slow burn, the care, the quiet—all were present in her most recent exhibition of paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, her first display of new work in seven years and a small preview of her major retrospective opening at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art next year and traveling to the Met Breuer in New York.

Since the 1960s, Celmins has worked from photographs she takes and collects. Her nearly monochrome matte canvases give up multiple colors when you look at them long enough, especially the “reverse” skies in this show, which feature dark stars spotting a white field—flecks of blue, orange, and brown amid the gray, white, and black. The surfaces of the skies have a smooth, even waxy flatness. The depth of the pictures, despite their lack of evidence of facture, is partly due to the painstaking procedure with which Celmins builds an image: She drops a tiny piece of liquid rubber from a sable brush where every star will be and builds the sky around each bump with black paint mixed with ultramarine blue, umber, and white. Once the rubber has dried, she removes the bump and fills the hole with white until it reaches the same level as the black around it, often sanding the surface at the end. (This procedure still doesn’t explain how the stars glow.)

The repetition of subjects lulls us away from content to the representation itself. Celmins has managed to make her extreme realism a form of abstraction, her maximalist detail a kind of Minimalist devotion. The things she chooses to depict also allow for a timelessness that melds with her process. In fact, a suite of paintings of a wave, A Painting in Six Parts, 1986–87/2012–16, was based on a photograph that Celmins took from a pier in Venice, California, fifty years ago.

The sculptures in this show boggled the mind. A mottled stone (the kind you might find on a beach) was placed in a vitrine next to its bronze, painted replica. A nineteenth-century slate blackboard in a wooden frame stood next to a double that Celmins had fabricated from wood and paint. (Although the stones sometimes give up their status on sustained looking, I never could guess which blackboard wasn’t “real.”) These Zeuxis-and-Parrhasius exercises are more than just exceptional feats of copying that recall the original Greek contest of painting. They also bring, with clever subtlety, a new reality to the object they depict: In the case of the tablets, a precise gray monochrome is also the primer surface for a child’s drawing and learning.

For all of their reality-shattering precision, Celmins’s works contain reminders of the joys of imperfection. The sides of her raw canvases are unpainted, abruptly ending the trompe l’oeil photography effect if we approach them obliquely. And now and again a delightful surprise breaks the systematic sameness of those shimmering stars and shifting waves. In a small canvas in the far room, a falling star slid down the pristine night sky like a smudge of paint. (Even then, it’s Celmins leading the charge: I would never think to say a smudge of paint like a falling star.)

Prudence Peiffer