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School Slate

School Slate
signed 'V. CELMINS 2009-2010' (to the underside of the tablet); signed and inscribed 'V CELMINS SHELF FOR SLATE' (on the reverse of the shelf)
acrylic and alkyd on bronze, string and wood shelf
tablet: 9 ¾ x 6 5⁄8 x ¼in. (24.8 x 16.8 x 0.6cm.)
shelf: 1 ½ x 10 5⁄8 x 2in. (3.8 x 27 x 5.2cm.)
overall: 10 ½ x 10 5⁄8 x 2in. (26.6 x 27 x 5.2cm.)
Executed in 2009-2010
The Artist.
Foundation for Contemporary Arts, New York.
Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2010).
Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2020.
New York, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Painting and Sculpture: Works Donated by Artists to Benefit the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, 2010-2011.

Brought to you by

Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Vija Celmins’s School Slate (2009-2010) transforms a seemingly innocuous historical artefact into a relic of uncanny power. It is a sculpture that takes the form of an unassuming school writing slate, perched on a similarly unembellished shelf. Its wooden frame bears the wear and crevices of time, and an illegible inscription. A black chalk hangs down from a string. The work belongs to a series that began in 2007, after Celmins found a 19th-century schoolchild’s writing slate in a secondhand shop on Sag Harbor, Long Island. ‘I think I remember having a tablet as a child,’ she recalls. ‘I thought, Gosh, this is such a handsome, complicated, beautiful thing’ (V. Celmins quoted in C. Tomkins, ‘Vija Celmins’s Surface Matter’, The New Yorker, 26 August 2019). Celmins began collecting them, then commissioning perfectly accurate replicas. School Slate is one such simulacrum: it is made of painted bronze, with meticulous brushwork reproducing the slate and weathered woodgrain in trompe-l’oeil detail. The shelf is made of real wood, adding to the work’s disorienting spell. Blackboard Tableau #1 (2007-2010), a group including both found originals and their sculptural doubles, is in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and was included in Celmins’s acclaimed 2018-2020 touring retrospective To Fix the Image in Memory.

Drawing is the most elemental form of Celmins’s art, and there are few graphic acts more primary than a child’s mark-making on a blackboard. The New York-based artist is celebrated for her largely monochrome paintings and drawings, which meticulously render nature, the oceans and the cosmos with a miraculous realism rivalling that of her near-contemporary Gerhard Richter’s photo-paintings. Celmins has always been engrossed by what she calls ‘simple objects.’ In the 1960s she painted everyday items remembered from her childhood, such as heaters, pencils, lamps and jigsaw puzzles. Sculpture has long formed an integral strand of her practice, as has the theme of doubling. Untitled (Comb) (1970, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) is an exact replica of a tortoiseshell hair comb expanded to significant scale. Between 1977-1982, she made bronze casts of found rocks which she then painted to become exact replicas, displaying them alongside the real thing. Celmins challenges the viewer to untangle the actual and the fabricated, the living world and the realm of art.

School Slate also provides a link to Celmins’s tumultuous childhood. Aged five, she and her family fled from Latvia to escape the Red Army. They landed in Nazi Germany, then on the verge of defeat. After the war they spent three years in a refugee camp before being relocated to the United States. The ten-year-old Celmins found herself forced to adapt to a new situation and language. School Slate is on the one hand a tabula rasa. Its scratches and scuffs, however, refute the notion that the past can be easily erased. ‘At once voluble and mute,’ writes Roberta Smith, ‘these relics of the human quest for knowledge require almost granular scrutiny before their secrets start to emerge, but you cannot be absolutely sure which the artist made. They are perhaps the most devotional of Ms. Celmins’s efforts. She all but disappears into them, leaving behind only praise for the world’ (R. Smith, ‘Deep Looking, With Vija Celmins’, The New York Times, 26 September 2019). School Slate is one such alluring enigma.

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