VIJA CELMINS (B. 1938)
VIJA CELMINS (B. 1938)
VIJA CELMINS (B. 1938)
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THE SURREALIST WORLD OF ROSALIND GERSTEN JACOBS AND MELVIN JACOBS
VIJA CELMINS (B. 1938)

Untitled (Mars)

Details
VIJA CELMINS (B. 1938)
Untitled (Mars)
signed and dated 'V. Celmins 1969' (on the reverse)
graphite on acrylic ground on paper
14 x 18 1⁄2 in. (35.6 x 47 cm.)
Drawn in 1969
Provenance
Acquired from the artist through Noma Copley by the late owners, 1971.
Exhibited
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, pp. 74 and 103 (illustrated).
Paris, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou and Los Angeles, Hammer Museum, Vija Celmins, October 2006-April 2007, pp. 58, 59 and 164, no. 11 (illustrated).
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and New York, The Met Breuer, Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, December 2018-January 2020, pp. 74 and 263 (illustrated).

Lot Essay

A singular voice in the postmodern critique of image culture, Vija Celmins has worked tirelessly in her investigation of the fragile divide between artist and machine. Included in her recent critically-acclaimed retrospective, Untitled (Mars) is a pivotal early example of the artist’s use of extant photographs to explore the relationship between the drawing process and mechanical reproduction. Challenging the established pretense of the picture plane and forcing a dual reading of her work as both a flat object and an illusionistic space, she notes, “this is an invented thing, you know? [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?” (quoted in “Vija Celmins: Building Surfaces, Art21, 2003, video). Blurring the line between drawing and facsimile, Celmins’s exacting compositions ask for a comprehensive viewing that goes beyond the pictorial subject.

Rendered with a meticulous application of graphite on a piece of acrylic-coated paper, Untitled (Mars) depicts a doubled view of Mars’s barren, cratered surface. Taken from space, the source photograph is precise and scientific and was created to relay information about topographical formations of the extraterrestrial landscape. It is an all-over composition that is viewed top-down, showing no tilt toward the horizon that would indicate distance or perspective. Instead, the viewing plane is even and flat; the only hint of texture or three-dimensionality is shown with subtle shifts in grayscale where the light hits a rocky outcropping or is shadowed by a crater’s wall. Celmins describes the photograph twice in the present example by insetting a smaller version into the center of the magnified view. This compositional choice both reinforces the reproducibility of the original image while also lending a mechanical air to the entire work. Furthermore, Celmins’s careful hand transcription of an image made by a machine in space highlights the core of her artistic process which relies on "a [reinvention] of [the photograph] in other terms that gives it another quality" (V. Celmins, quoted in The Painting of Modern Life: 1960s To Now, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 2008, p. 71). She is depicting both the subject and the object, the Martian land and the captured image. “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" (quoted in ibid., p. 71). By emphasizing the relationship between the original scene, the photograph and her drawing, she asks for a reassessment of our understanding of vision. Beginning in the late 1960s, Celmins started in earnest on an investigation of the relationship between the artist’s hand and the mechanically reproduced image, between human vision and technological perception. Often using photographs of flat, seemingly monotonous scenes like oceans, deserts, or the inky expanse of outer space, she created a conversation about the relativity of distance and its connection to our own visual understanding. Art historian Linda Relyea notes that "one marvels at the way in which Celmins captures the expansiveness of her subject. Yet, she simultaneously reminds the viewer that this work of art was 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 all-over image is built up stroke by stroke, just as a wall can be built brick by brick. Nothing is spontaneous or left to chance; rather, the finished work is the product of painstaking craft and diligence" ("Vija Celmins' Twilight Zone," Vija Celmins, New York, 2004, p. 16). Each shadow, highlight and grain of silver halide in the original print is rendered in graphite as the artist carefully reinterprets the photograph through her meditative process.

Having been in the Jacobs collection for over fifty years, Untitled (Mars) comes from a series of twenty-two works created from late 1967 through 1970. Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs acquired the work directly from the artist herself via their good friend, Noma Copley, in 1971. Realized in 1969, Untitled (Mars) was created in the same year as two major events in the history of space exploration. Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of the moon in July, and in August the Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 probes took the first close-up photographs of the Red Planet. From images released by NASA in various publications, Celmins sourced scientific documents that would serve as her focal point in several works including the present example. Though the immediate subjects of her work are often natural in origin, it is not the waves, the spiderwebs, or the distant landmasses that she is most interested in depicting. Instead, she selects photographs based on their ability to fulfill her investigative needs. Her process, she notes, does not have “that romantic thing, that Caspar Friedrich tendency to project loneliness and romance onto nature; to contrast nature's grandness with tiny, insignificant watchers. I like looking and describing, using images to explore the process of making" (quoted in Artist's Journal, September 1984 and interview with Chuck Close, Vija Celmins, ed. W.S. Bartman, 1992, p. 38). The evidence of process and time spent is paramount to her work. Using nothing but graphite, she eschewed the use of erasers and started over if a mistake were made. This exacting, particular method results in incredibly detailed depictions that mimic technological means so closely that the viewer is left to study a result that borders on the sublime.
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