Vija Celmins’s meditative works are a testament to both the artist’s skill as well as her deep interest in the world around her. At the same time, the subjects that her works take on hover at the edge of the visible and threaten to spill over into the expansive history of abstraction. Works like Untitled (Night Sky #7), though rendered with simple charcoal on paper, explore the vastness of space and the wonder of the night sky while offering a notable counterpoint to the vigor and violence of mid-century painting. Coming of age in the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist disciples and the beginnings of Pop and Conceptual Art, Celmins’s interest in images as objects, as well as the power of photography to refocus vision, made her a singularly meditative voice in the cacophonous second half of the 20th century. “Tellingly, it’s by rendering endless stretches of deserts and oceans, and eventually the open blankness of the night-time sky, that Celmins most firmly establishes homelessness as a dominant motif. The point of view that her art now assumes, either looking down at the ground or up at the sky, suggests a traveler brought to a standstill, shaken loose from a sense of direction or destination. There are no spotlight landmarks or relevant deeds on which to fix one’s eyes; instead there’s a looming abstraction-some ultimate encounter at the farthest end of representation-that belongs as much to a subjective as an objective world, a sense of deliverance and tranquility at once feared and desired” (L. Relyea, “Vija Celmins’ Twilight Zone,” Vija Celmins, New York, 2004, pp. 87-89). In the 1960s and 70s, Celmins began a continuing project (to which Untitled (Night Sky #7) belongs) that investigated the starry expanses of space. Thinking about the differences between human and technological vision, as well as the hand-drawn versus the photographic reproduction, the artist continues to push for a rumination on distance and closeness in the often paradoxically illusionistic surface of her works.
Taking on a familiar subject, Untitled (Night Sky #7) continues Celmins’s exploration of the cosmos using nothing but charcoal on paper. Drawing from photographic sources but never copying the images exactly, the artist creates areas of dense black and gray populated by pinpoints of white. Each star shines through the drawing media’s carbon layer. Staring at the piece is much like looking up at the night sky as particular sections catch the eye or twinkle in your periphery. The faint traces of nebulae exist as areas of less dense application, whereas the richness of the space between the stars pulls in light to the fullest. Intricately worked and precisely finished, Untitled (Night Sky #7) is a treatise on the artist’s attention to detail and exhaustive talent for turning photographs of the expanse into drawings that breathe and shimmer with traces of the artist’s hand. “Some people think that I just sit down and copy the photograph,” Celmins has said. “It is precisely that I reinvent it in other terms.” (V. Celmins in C. Tompkins, “Vija Celmins’s Surface Matters,” The New Yorker, New York, August 28, 2019). Her drawings (and paintings to the same extent) infuse found images with a notion of time and care while also divorcing the finished product from anything distinctly personal. Pulled from books found at the California Institute of Technology, Celmins’s constellation images transmute technical reproductions into rich studies on mark making. Talking with the artist Chuck Close, Celmins noted, “I see drawing as thinking, as evidence of thinking, evidence of going from one place to another. One draws to define one thing from another. Draws proportions, adjusts scale. It is impossible to paint without drawing.” (V. Celmins, in conversation with in C. Close, in William S. Bartman (ed.), Vija Celmins, New York, 1992, p. 11). This evidence, and the manner in which Celmins both displays and coyly hides it in her work, are central to an understanding of the artist’s seemingly impersonal oeuvre.
From 1966 onward, Celmins began using photographs as the subjects for her drawings and paintings. Whether they were taken by the artist herself or sourced from a magazine or book, these images became the jumping off point for her meticulous compositions. Attracted to expansive scenes of the ocean, the desert, or the inky night sky, Celmins creates intimate works that embody the spacious nature of their subject while simultaneously remaining personal. Lane Relyea noted how “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 build 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, op. cit., p. 16). In her paintings, Celmins’s is known for working up a layer and then sanding down the surface only to apply a new one in its place. In her drawings, she takes equal care, going so far as to discard pieces that contain mistakes rather than erasing the offending stroke.
At work in her skies, seas, and depictions of desert lands is a palpable play between representation and abstraction. Works such as Untitled (Night Sky #7) exist as images on the edge. It could easily become a more documentary work that specifically references a photograph, but at the same time the attention to each tiny stroke of charcoal pushes one’s thinking toward the image as object. Celmins sometimes cites the work of Paul Cézanne and his obsession with painting and repainting the views of Mont Sainte-Victoire in the early 1900s as a starting point for her interest in representing similar subjects over and over in a meditative manner. The artist noted, “I mean, the thing that I think I got from Cézanne and looking at Cézanne—which took me years—is sort of a really gutsy relationship between the image and the plain flat object. He has such a wonderful way of pointing that out to you in every stroke. And also, the fact—which I think was a great part of the twentieth century—that this is an invented thing, you know? That it’s not, like, a copy of nature or a copy of a photograph. It’s an invented thing that you have in front of you, you know? So, I think I kind of have that in me somewhere, this relationship” (V. Celmins, Vija Celmins: Building Surfaces, Art21, 2003, video). Taking into account that the image is not the thing it represents but is actually a discrete object in of itself is key to Celmins’s practice, and can be seen equally well in her exacting sculptural work and the two-dimensional compositions. On the other hand, the artist’s images of stars and distant galaxies develop a tension between this intimate objectivity and the reality of the subject matter. She remarks, “I like big spaces, and I wrestle them into a small area and say, ‘Lie down and stay there, like a good dog.’” (V. Celmins in C. Tompkins, op. cit.). By passing the infinite nature of space through the tip of her pencil, Celmins puts a tenuous handle on her, and our, place within the universe.