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Property from the Anderson Family Collection

Untitled (Divided Rectangle)

Untitled (Divided Rectangle)
oil on canvas
14 1/8 x 18 in. (35.9 x 45.7 cm.)
Painted in 1986-1987.
David McKee Gallery, New York
Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson
By descent from the above to the present owner
L. Relyea, et al., Vija Celmins, New York, 2004, pp. 138-139 (illustrated).
E. Reifert, Die "Night Sky"-Gemälde von Vija Celmins: Malerei zwischen Repräsentationskritik und Sichtbarkeitsereignis, Bielefeld, 2011, pp. 122 and 231, fig. 27 (illustrated).
New York, David McKee Gallery, Vija Celmins: New Paintings, November-December 1988.
Santa Monica, Pence Gallery, Good Works, 1989.
Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Institute of Contemporary Art; Seattle, University of Washington, Henry Art Gallery; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art and Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Vija Celmins, November 1992-February 1994, p. 95 (illustrated).
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Celebrating Modern Art: The Anderson Collection, October 2000-January 2001, p. 357, cat. no. 40.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario, Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, December 2018-August 2019, pp. 140-141 and 265 (illustrated).

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Isabella Lauria Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

“My intention is to make a fat, full form… between the tangible, flat canvas and the volume of all those things like memory, and actual three-dimensional space, and how we experience the world, is where the chance to build the form comes. It looks like a narrow space from outside, but once you get in there and start to work it gets bigger. And I expect a lot from that space.” - Vija Celmins, in “Vija Celmins: Material Fictions, Parkett, no. 44, p. 40.

One of her earliest paintings executed after a long hiatus in which the artist eschewed painting altogether, Vija Celmins’s Untitled (Divided Rectangle) stands out as a triumphant example of the artist’s investigation into both the nature of images, and of painting in general. The idea of duality and the play between representation and abstraction shows itself in many of the artist’s works, a strategy she gleaned from an intense study of Cezanne. “…the thing I got from Cezanne and looking at Cezanne—which took me years—is a really gutsy relationship between the image and the plain flat object,” she confessed. “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? That it’s not a copy of nature or a copy of a photograph. It’s an invented thing that you have in front of you. So, I think I kind of have that in me somewhere, this relationship” (V. Celmins, Vija Celmins: Building Surfaces, Art21, 2003, video). By representing real-world subjects while simultaneously drawing attention to the constructed nature of a painting, Celmins is able to establish a new discourse about viewing and the construction of the visible.

As the parenthetical title suggests, in Untitled (Divided Rectangle) the artist has visually separated the rectangular surface into two halves. The left half is given to a luxuriously brushy white ground while the right houses a vast web of infinite stars. The latter is housed within a dense black field, a deliberate use of cropping that allows its collection of lights to twinkle as brilliant dots and pinpricks. Like her other variations on this theme, the sprinkling of white inhabiting the dark rectangle comes not from a gestural fluidity or any kind of chaotic chance, but instead from a painstaking recreation of a photograph of the night sky. The ratio of the enclosing frame echoes that of a drug store photo print as its crisp rendering competes with the wispy, cloudy white surroundings that make up the rest of the composition. This visual dichotomy brings about a more pointed examination of Celmins’s working conditions, and one becomes aware of the sheer amount of time imbued into each of her pieces.

Pairing the painterly white surface, which bears comparison to those of her action painter cohorts, with what seems at first to be a cold documentation of the sky, Celmins coaxes a deeper reading of the whole and asks for the viewer to spend extended time examining the intricate machinations of her labor.

One of her earliest paintings executed after a decades-long hiatus in which the artist eschewed oil painting altogether, Vija Celmins’s Untitled (Divided Rectangle) stands out as a triumphant example of the artist’s investigation into both the nature of images, and of painting in general.
Her unmatched technical mastery results in spellbinding paintings that propose radical subversions of art historical conventions.

Celmins use of ‘empty’ space acts to focus our attention on the more heavily worked areas of the canvas. Here, her choice of white pigment concentrates the darkness even more, piercing it only with a galaxy of brilliant white stars.

This painting exemplifies the artist’s ‘push/pull’ process—she pulls you in with her incredible level of intricate detail, while at the same time pushing you away when you realize her painstaking method of constantly applying and erasing pigment is needed in order to deliver these spellbinding results.

‘An homage to art’
In this work, Celmins pays tribute to a number of artistic movements: Surrealism, Abstraction, Appropriation, and Photorealism. In this painting, she expertly brings together a number of disparate art historical movements that have previously only ever existed to opposition to each other.

‘From Pencil to Paint’
For the two decades prior to producing Untitled (Divided Rectangle), Celmins worked exclusively in graphite pencil. Here she makes a triumphal return to painting. This medium offers new challenges and opportunities, allowing her to produce what she has described as ‘a more complicated spatial experience.’

‘Celebrating Surface’
This work possesses a heavily worked and highly textured surface, imbuing the painting with an almost sculptural quality. It acts like a ‘Rosetta Stone’ of sorts, unlocking Celmins’ previous interest in representation, and combining it with her increasing celebration of process.

“[Celmins] makes an image that has too much presence, too much impact and physicality just to be a representation; and yet it also feels too belated, too poignantly residual to stand as an autonomous entity. Rather, the work exists in the dialectical interplay between the two; neither the dutiful reportings of an already existing object nor the sovereign emanations of a god-like object.” - Lane Relyea

In the 1960s, after studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, Celmins began painting from photographs, using the source material as a means of investigating the larger implications of image culture and the crossover between media. The consideration of these larger issues was tangential to the rise of Pop Art, whose origins stemmed from the 1962 exhibition “New Painting of Common Objects” organized by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum. However, Celmins was less interested in consumerism and advertisement, instead choosing to focus on “not using Pop’s commercial techniques, but a more tender touch” (L. Relyea, R. Gober, and B. Fer, eds., Vija Celmins, London, 2004, p. 15).

In the late 1960s and into the 70s, she abandoned painting to focus on meticulous graphite drawings of the sea and the sky. During this time she also began working in sculpture, producing painted one-to-one bronze recreations of stones she collected along the banks of the Rio Grande.

Of particular interest in the present work is the dynamic play between Celmins’s usual fastidious renderings and a looser, more painterly surface that makes no pretense about its origins. Breaking her hiatus in the early 1980s, the artist began to paint again, choosing to focus on celestial images (among others) and playing with negative space. It is these two aspects that seat Untitled (Divided Rectangle) firmly within Celmins’s pioneering oeuvre from that period. Juxtaposing the flatness of the canvas with the unreachable depths of the cosmos, she sets up a surreal visual play that ricochets the viewer between the very surface of the painting and the perceived infinite of the stars.

"The compelling nature of her art is not that her paintings arrive at a meditation on photographic melancholy. It is how Celmins shows that painting can grapple on its own terms with issues of distance and detachment" (R. Rhodes, "Vija Celmins, painter," in Vija Celmins Works 1964--96, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, 1996, p. 99). Not satisfied with a collaged photograph on a bare canvas, Celmins recreates the effect with oil in such an exacting manner as to retain all of the commentaries on authorship and mechanical reproduction while infusing the entire affair with an even deeper questioning about the signifiers of the artist’s hand and the art of painting itself.

“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 tow by fours and nails. Nothing is spontaneous or left to chance; rather, the finished work is the product of painstaking craft and diligence.” - Lane Relyea

Untitled (Divided Rectangle) was purchased directly from the David McKee Gallery’s exhibition “Vija Celmins: New Paintings” by Harry ‘Hunk’ and Mary Margaret ‘Moo’ Anderson, important collectors from San Francisco who established the Anderson Collection at Stanford University. A driving principle behind the couple’s acquisitions was a balance between conceptual rigor and masterful craftsmanship. With this in mind, it is clear why Celmins became part of their well-researched holdings and why pieces like Untitled (Divided Rectangle) were particularly attractive to the Andersons alongside works from Agnes Martin, Mark Rothko, and other twentieth-century luminaries. Exhibited in both the groundbreaking retrospective Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory (2018) and the momentous Celebrating Modern Art: The Anderson Collection (2000) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the present work is a rare moment in Celmins’s career where she pulled back the veil of calculated composition to better reveal her processes. “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 tow 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). Celmins truly works in the interstitial area between the conceptual analysis of how images work and the realm where formal qualities of material and composition meld with the artist’s lived action and time.

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