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Vija Celmins (b. 1938)
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The Clarke Collection
Vija Celmins (b. 1938)

Long Ocean #5

Details
Vija Celmins (b. 1938)
Long Ocean #5
signed, inscribed and dated 'Vija Celmins 1972 Los Angeles' (on the reverse)
graphite on acrylic ground on paper
29 ½ x 43 5/8 in. (74.9 x 110.8 cm.)
Executed in 1972.
Provenance
Donna O'Neill, Los Angeles, acquired directly from the artist
Her sale; Sotheby's, New York, 13 May 2003, lot 6
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Literature
E. Reifert, The "Night Sky" painting by Vija Celmins: Painting between representation critique and visibility event, Bielefeld, 2011, pp. 69 and 229, no. 14 (illustrated).
Exhibited
Newport Harbor Art Museum; Arts Club of Chicago; Yonkers, Hudson River Museum and Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Vija Celmins: A Survey Exhibition, December 1979-October 1980, pp. 64 and 85, no. 40 (illustrated).
Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art; Seattle, University of Washington, Henry Art Gallery; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Vija Celmins, November 1992-April 1994, p. 103, no. 44.
New York, Craig F. Starr Gallery, Surface / Infinity: Vija Celmins, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, April-May 2012, n.p., no. 1 (illustrated).

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan

Lot Essay

“Los Angeles was then mainly pictured as a territory of bright color and radiant sunshine and most of the best art being made was aggressively seductive—Vija’s, on the other hand, was gray, delicately touched and still. Nothing is more emblematic of Los Angeles than the Pacific, but Vija’s ocean, a self-portrait really, runs deep. Her ocean is an inner one, the surface of the moving water reflective of the unconscious.”
—Tony Berlant, October 2013

Vija Celmins is an artist represented in The Clarke Collection, whose practice is defined by perception and process. The large-scale Long Ocean #5, 1972, is a meticulous and mesmerizing work, in which the indefinite and limitless quality of the ocean’s surface is re-created in an infinitesimal array of delicate graphite marks. The subtle gray tones applied in a careful and painstaking fashion betray not a single errant mark, making for a matrix of undulating waves and whose flawless appearance float atop the paper’s surface. Celmins’ exquisite ocean drawings are among her most significant contributions to the field of modern art, with examples owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Philadelphia Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. “One marvels at the way in which Celmins captures the expansiveness of her subject. Yet, she simultaneously reminds the viewer that this is a work of art made by the artist with her drawing pencils on a piece of paper. Each mark or gesture remains visible but inseparable from the field. The allover build up of two by fours and nails. Nothing is spontaneous or left to chance; rather, the finished work is the product of painstaking craft and diligence” (L. Relyea, “’Vija Celmins’ Twilight Zone,” Vija Celmins, New York, 2004, p. 16).
Throughout her lifetime, Vija Celmins has grappled with the magical verisimilitude of the vast, mysterious expanses of the world through a combination of deep focus and virtuoso skill. She creates ordinary, quotidian subject matters that are constantly out of reach: the swaying seas, motionless and archaic deserts, and the timeless sky, all of which evoke a heavy sense of temporal unease that hangs over them. As one of the finest examples of Celmins’ graphite drawings, Long Ocean #5 is an awakening work from her iconic Ocean series, an important theme which the artist first experimented with in the late 1960s and has continued to focus on throughout all decades of her career. Different from her other all-over ocean drawings, Long Ocean #5 divides the canvas into two parts, with the dark-toned sea undulating below the forever unfilled sky. There is no hierarchy of attention in her composition, no coastline or rocks or landmarks, no framing device, no distinct elements which would potentially distract people from gazing out over the vast open sea.
Celmins rendered the evenly spread surface by assiduously depositing and removing, sometimes even raking and combing graphite across a flat field for months and years. Isolated and self-contained, Long Ocean #5 transcends mere representation and amazes the viewer by the flatness of drawing, along with the full and dense emotions underneath.
After moving to Venice to pursue an MFA at the University of California, Los Angeles, Celmins began taking photographs of the Pacific Ocean. The artist was fascinated with painting expansive, flat surfaces. The two-dimensional compositions of the ocean photographs perfectly suited the inherent flatness of the paper, providing an ideal image for her. Celmins diverged from other artists working in California at the time, such as Wayne Thiebaud, David Hockney and Ed Ruscha, who predominantly combined bright colors and seductive imagery to form their compositions. Her Pacific Ocean, on the other hand, is one composed of calm and austere grays that capture the bewildering sense of isolation and dislocation. She explains, “I think that I was always thinking that I was on the outside because I was so foreign. I was a foreigner in Germany. I was a foreigner here in the US. I was sort of a foreigner in California…my color tones were too gray, maybe, for California, or the work was too severe…I was always fighting. And I was thinking even if nobody gets it, I had a feeling that I could go and I could work…it’s like building a self through the work. And then the work sort of reflects some aspects of yourself” (V. Celmins, quoted in L. Relyea, R. Gober, and B. Fer, Vija Celmins, New York, 2004, p. 24).
In the mid-1960s, photographs came to play a pivotal role as documentation of happenings, performances and Conceptual Art. Many artists, including Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, used photography as both a studio aid as well as primary subject matter. Although Celmins co-existed within this generation of artists, she uniquely attempted to more closely emulate the formal qualities of a photograph’s fine grain, balance and fragility. Instead of spreading paint with a brush like her Abstract Expressionist peers, she started to work with graphite on paper only. With a utensil which has a more exact point, she performs a kind of surgery, operating on her subject matter precisely rather than gesturing towards it hazily. She draws for months, even years, using this simple, repetitive, almost meditative process, to reveal her ideas more transparently. “One marvels at the way in which Celmins captures the expansiveness of her subject. Yet, she simultaneously reminds the viewer that this is a work of art made by the artist with her drawing pencils on a piece of paper. Each mark or gesture remains visible but inseparable from the field. The allover image is built up stroke by stroke—just as a house is built up of two by fours and nails. Nothing is spontaneous or left to chance; rather, the finished work is the product of painstaking craft and diligence” (L. Relyea, "Vija Celmins' Twilight Zone," Vija Celmins, New York, 2004, pp. 78).
In Long Ocean #5, the artist subtracts colors and jettisons paint itself, basing her exquisitely wrought drawings on the world around her while attentively picking out the external sources which metaphorically reflect her artistic medium. Celmins’ all-over composition evokes a strong sense of looming abstraction, positioning her work akin to Agnes Martin's minimalist expanses. Oftentimes described as alone, staring off into the distance, and lost in her own world, Celmins creates images which level out and calm down, repeating the same passage many times over to build a concrete yet unattainable fantasy. Her works have being recently celebrated in a travelling retrospective co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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