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Vija Celmins

American, born Latvia, 1939

Web Ladder, 2010. © 2010 Vija Celmins.

Suite of 5 Mezzotints, 2010

One-plate, one-color mezzotints on Magnani Pescia Satinato bright white paper, edition 6/30
16 1/2 x 11 3/4 inches (41.9 x 29.8 cm) each
Charlotte A. Watson Fund, by exchange, 2010


Web Ladder, 2010
Divided Night Sky, 2010
Reverse Galaxy, 2010
Falling Stars, 2010
Dark Galaxy, 2010

Rendering images that oscillate between the micro- and macrocosmic worlds, Vija Celmins has spent most of her career rendering the universals in nature: ocean waves, shells, fields of stones, spiderwebs, desert and moon floors, and night skies. Objects of contemplation, Celmins's paintings and drawings (and, occasionally, sculptures) depict all-over patterning in meticulous trompe l'oeil, fluctuating between abstraction—where the eye sees only patterns, dots, curves, and waves—and representation—where the image of the web or the ocean wave, for example, emerges. While she has been depicting such imagery repeatedly for decades, her earliest paintings, done in the mid-1960s while a student in Los Angeles, were of, according to the artist, "deadpan" still life, such as a lamp, a hot plate, or a television set: objects emitting a dull glow against a drab gray background. These were followed by gray paintings based on news photographs of World War II bombers and fighter planes. Somehow, it's not surprising that her ability to imbue such mundane or banal objects with utterly uncanny and melancholy qualities transferred into her ability to repetitively and obsessively render surfaces that appear to have uniform, overall qualities, yet evoke such profound, meditative, and emotionally powerful sensations. 

Celmins has said that the images in this series of works are a "record of some intense looking, something internal passing from me to it, from it to me . . . a disappearance of time, a feeling of innocence, of silence. In the work I like the best, these qualities remain." Looking closely at an image created by Celmins evokes the depths of the universe itself: stars become holes become pin pricks become specks of dust, webs become lines become the dust of the cosmos, matter becomes anti-matter becomes space becomes emptiness. Her work, like life, is about everything, and nothing at all.