Vija Celmins (b. 1938)
Property from the Collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson
Vija Celmins (b. 1938)

Star Field I

Vija Celmins (b. 1938)
Star Field I
signed and dated 'Vija Celmins 1981-82' (on the reverse)
graphite on paper
19 x 27 in. (48.2 x 68.5 cm.)
Drawn in 1981-1982.
David McKee Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1983
K. Baker, "Vija Celmins: Drawing without Withdrawing," Artforum, vol. 22, no. 3, November 1983, p. 64 (illustrated upside down).
W. S. Bartman, ed., Vija Celmins, New York, 1992, p. 56 (illustrated upside down).
S. Wagstaff, "Vija Celmins," Parkett, no. 32, June 1992, p. 10.
L. Relyea, R. Gober and B. Fer, Vija Celmins, New York, 2004, p. 89 (illustrated upside down).
Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art, 1945-1986, December 1986-January 1988, pp. 98 and 341 (illustrated upside down).
Santa Monica, Pence Gallery, Good Works, 1989.
Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania; Seattle, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Vija Celmins, November 1992-February 1994, p. 92 (illustrated upside down).
San Francisco, Haines Gallery, Significant Artists: Works on Paper, October-November 1994.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Celebrating Modern Art: The Anderson Collection, October 2000-January 2001, pp. 118, 300-301 and 356, fig. 84, no. 38 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Centre Pompidou; Los Angeles, Hammer Museum, Vija Celmins: Dessins/Drawings, October 2006-April 2007, pp. 112-113, no. 45 (illustrated in color upside down).
San Jose Museum of Art, De-Natured: Work from the Anderson Collection and the Anderson Graphic Arts Collection, October 2007-January 2008, p. 12 (illustrated in color).
Sale room notice
Please note that a request for this work's inclusion in the forthcoming Vija Celmins retrospective from 2018 through 2020 being organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Art Gallery of Toronto and The Met Breuer in New York has been made, to which the current owners have agreed.

Brought to you by

Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Please note that a request for this work's inclusion in the forthcoming Vija Celmins retrospective from 2018 through 2020 being organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Art Gallery of Toronto and The Met Breuer in New York has been made, to which the current owners have agreed.

Known for her exacting precision and rigorous investigation of image culture, Vija Celmins helped to forge solid connections between idea-based practice and process-oriented modes, and continues to be one of the most understatedly influential artists working today. Star Field I is a stunning example of her meticulously photorealistic works on paper, and is a true testament to her work in graphite. While seemingly simple, Celmins’s works belie a level of expertise and care coupled with a firm conceptual backing. Impossibly detailed in their composition, Celmins’s works give form to a deeper conversation about the production of imagery and its relation to the viewer, distance, and the nature of time.

A radiating cluster of white spots in a field of inky blackness, Star Field I resembles the overwhelming vision of a night sky in the desert. Away from any light pollution on Earth, the incredible magnitude of the cosmos is readily seen. The dense central portion is made up of near-countless stars of varying sizes surrounded by thick graphite. Each point of light is actually the underlying paper showing through, a sure signifier of Celmins’s exacting control over the pencil. The artist’s mastery of the medium comes from a rigorous investigation into its possibilities. She noted, “I had been working with the pencil and I began to see that the graphite itself had a certain life to it. So, I did a series...using different grades of graphite and pushing each one to its limit. I learned a lot about the possibilities of expressiveness in graphite by doing this” (V. Celmins, quoted in Drawing as Thinking, exh. cat., Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 1999). Extracting such life from one of the most basic of artist tools is a confirmation of Celmins’s skill, and so precise is her rendering of this field of distant lights that one is uncertain if it is a drawing or an image taken from a telescope aimed at the heavens. This uncanny dialogue between the idea of a photographic image and the pure graphite is at the heart of her artistic inquiry.

Establishing her practice in the 1960s and 70s, Celmins created works that reacted to the culture of the time. American Pop artists and those interested in found and repurposed imagery were reinventing the way commercial processes and photography were talked about in the realm of fine art. Initially focusing on domestic objects like her contemporary Andy Warhol and investigating the place of the photograph like Gerhard Richter’s blurry facsimiles, Celmins veered from the more popular modes in favor of a less immediate, but deeply rewarding practice. Her drawings and paintings rely on “a [reinvention] of [the photograph] in other terms that gives it another quality.... The photo is an alternate subject, another layer that creates distance. And distance creates an opportunity to view the work more slowly, a chance to explore your relationship to it” (V. Celmins, quoted in The Painting of Modern Life: 1960s To Now, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, 2008, p. 71). The temporal aspect is exceedingly important to a thorough appreciation of Celmins’s oeuvre, and works like Star Field I typify her unparalleled dedication to instilling each work with a near-palpable sense of time.

This focus on time and the visualization of work hours is both immensely important and carefully hidden in Celmins’s practice. Her adept handling of graphite in works like Star Field I produces no trace of the artist’s hand and instead resembles a photograph taken by a deep space telescope. Similarly, her paintings of the night sky may come off as singular, quick ideas, but are in fact the result of countless hours in the studio. Speaking to this effect, Celmins noted in 2004, “Lately I have been painting a work over and over... sanding it off and painting it again on top of itself. Same image over and over. Actually, I tend to end up with a simple-looking single image that may have six months of work under lets you in for a little bit and you think you may be seeing something that isn’t there. The black night sky paintings are especially hard to penetrate” (V. Celmins, quoted in L. Relyea, R. Gober, and B. Fer, Vija Celmins, New York, 2004, p. 10). The practice of producing the same image over and over on one canvas or sheet of paper ties in with the artist’s overall output. Her selection of subject matter is decidedly sparse for an artist with such a rich career. Choosing to focus on repetitive, intricate images like representations of nebulae, spider webs, and ocean waves, Celmins asks for a more profound meditation on external concepts rather than skipping from one subject to the next.

Born in Latvia during the prelude to World War II, Celmins’s family moved to the United States at the end of the war. She studied painting in Indianapolis, but would frequently travel to New York where she was taken by the work of the Abstract Expressionists. In the early 1960s, she enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, and by the end of the decade had begun to take photographs to base her works upon. These initial images of the ocean, deserts, and the night sky have factored into her distinct oeuvre, of which Star Field I is a potent example. The inquiry into constellations and galaxies is especially telling of Celmins’s practice as it brings the artist’s hand into conversation with images not possible without cutting-edge technology. The densely-packed fields of astral phenomena are not the result of viewing with the human eye, but are instead a testament to the reliance on advanced telescopes to bring the cosmos closer to earth. At the same time, the intense labor and time that Celmins devotes to her works is ever present in the sheer exactitude of her process. “[O]ne 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” (ibid, p. 16). This juxtaposition of incredibly personal contact and the vast distances of space afford Celmins a unique place in the history of art that hovers provocatively between conceptual rigor and process-based inquiry.

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