In 1963, the artist Vija Celmins relocated from the midwestern city of Indianapolis to California. She settled in the Venice neighbourhood of Los Angeles, then a rather insalubrious part of town. Her new home lacked a kitchen and a bathroom, yet what it did boast, crucially, was proximity to the beach.
Celmins’ work over the following decade or so diverged from most of the art being made in California at the time. Not for her the bright colours and seductive Pop imagery created by the likes of Wayne Thiebaud, David Hockney and Ed Ruscha.
Instead, Celmins made the Pacific Ocean her subject, with a series of landmark monochrome images. On 14 November a standout work from the series, Long Ocean #5, is being offered in the Post-War & Contemporary Art Afternoon Session at Christie’s in New York.
‘With her exquisite ocean drawings, Celmins made a major contribution to late-20th-century art — and Long Ocean #5 is a special example,’ says Emily Kaplan, Vice President and Head of Day Sales in Post-War & Contemporary Art in New York.
Celmins’ inspiration came from evening walks by the sea, during which she took photographs from Venice Pier. The sea’s surface captivated her in a way she struggled to put into words. ‘I wanted to document that image,’ she said.
The artist decided graphite offered the best way forward, working on sheets of paper primed with acrylic ground. These sheets ranged in size, just as her pencils ranged in hardness, the result being a subtle yet broad combination of greys that’s utterly photorealistic.
Celmins varied the pressure she exerted on her pencil too, depending on whether she was depicting wavelets (dark) or the areas between them (light).
‘Some people think I just sit down and copy the photograph,’ Celmins has said. ‘It is precisely that I reinvent it in other terms.’
The artist was meticulous in her approach, throwing away any sheet she wasn’t happy with — even if she was near the end of the three weeks it typically took her to complete a drawing.
‘Some people think I just sit down and copy the photograph,’ Celmins has said. ‘It is precisely that I reinvent it in other terms’
Her seas always look in motion, yet manage to evoke a great sense of stillness and calm at the same time. ‘These works have a seemingly infinite number of graphite marks, to match the seemingly infinite quality of the ocean,’ Kaplan says.
The Pacific was the main focus of Celmins’ art from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and has remained a subject throughout her career. Numerous commentators have praised the way the drawings are so varied. ‘Each one is unique, with its own character and mood,’ says Kaplan.
In most cases, Celmins filled the paper from edge to edge, with neither horizon nor shore. The viewer is thrown into pure sea. Long Ocean #5, however, is a rare example in two parts, with a stretch of undulating water drawn beneath a bare sky.
Celmins depicts a vast expanse of limitless possibility, familiar to us yet out of reach
It comes to auction as part of The Clarke Collection, art acquired over the past 50 years by architect Fred Clarke and his wife Laura Weir Clarke. The couple moved to California in 1970 and immersed themselves in the scene around Venice, where several artists had studios. Their collection is particularly rich in work made on the West Coast in the 1960s and 1970s, by pioneering figures such as Celmins, Ruscha and Ken Price. Laura describes Long Ocean #5 as ‘almost hypnotic’ — and the hardest artwork for her to part with.
It’s one of two pieces by Celmins that Christie’s is offering this autumn. The other, Untitled (Night Sky #7) will feature in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 13 November. Made in 1995, it’s an example of a later drawings series by the artist, focusing on the starry night sky. Just as with her ocean works, Celmins depicts a vast expanse of limitless possibility, at once familiar to us yet out of reach.
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Born in Latvia in 1938, Vija Celmins moved to Indianapolis with her parents as a girl. For decades, she worked without great popularity or acclaim but all that has dramatically changed in the past couple of years. In November 2017, her ocean drawing Lead Sea #2 sold at Christie’s for $4.2 million, the record price for a work by the artist at auction.
In December 2018, a major retrospective of Celmins’ work opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is now on view at the Met Breuer in New York until January 12 next year.
‘She may be in her eighties, and may have had to wait a long time,’ says Kaplan, ‘but Vija Celmins is really having a moment right now.’