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LA Cool: Property from the Laura Lee Stearns Collection

Untitled (Moon Image)

Untitled (Moon Image)
signed, inscribed and dated 'Vija Celmins L.A. 1969' (on the reverse)
graphite on acrylic ground on paper
14 x 18 1⁄2 in. (35.6 x 47 cm.)
Drawn in 1969.
Riko Mizuno Gallery, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1970
London, Institute of Contemporary Art; Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia; Kuntsmuseum Winterthur and Frankfurt, Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Vija Celmins, November 1996-September 1997.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Toronto, The Art Gallery of Ontario, and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, December 2018-December 2020, p. 69 (illustrated).

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

One of the most remarkable artists of her generation, Vija Celmins is a dynamic figure who has worked tirelessly to develop a singularly inventive practice in the wake of mid-twentieth-century American painting. Coming from the collection of Laura Lee Stearns, this work is a pivotal example of Celmins’ approach to drawing, appropriation, and the portrayal of physical and depicted space. Untitled (Moon Image) illustrates the early conceptual and technical prowess the artist displayed while separating herself from the dominant mode. Her frequent focus on drawing in an art world so fixated by the legacy of painting speaks to her core values and the care with which she realizes her work. “I see drawing as thinking, as evidence of thinking, evidence of going from one place to another,” she noted, “One draws to define one thing from another. Draws proportions, adjusts scale. It is impossible to paint without drawing” (V. Celmins, in conversation with C. Close, in W. S. Bartman, ed., Vija Celmins, New York, 1992, p. 11). The inextricable link between the careful mark-making of Celmins’s graphite compositions and her painted or sculpted works further emphasizes this interest in thinking, observing, and taking the time to look closely.

The present example was included in a recent major retrospective of Celmins’s career that traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of Toronto, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was acquired directly from Celmins’s earliest dealer, Riko Mizuno, who opened her space on La Cienaga Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1967, only two years before the drawing was completed. In addition to Celmins, the gallery also showed artists like Larry Bell and Chris Burden, and was associated with members of Ferus Gallery. Like the stable of Pop artists connected to Ferus, Celmins also began with imagery derived from domesticity and daily life. On the surface, her compositions might seem to fall in line with the Pop interest in commercial imagery and printing techniques, and her use of extant photographs draws comparisons to Gerhard Richter’s early work. However, Celmins goes beyond the everyday and instead relies 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, statement in The Painting of Modern Life: 1960s to Now, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, 2008, p. 71). Rather than openly commenting on consumer culture and the faces of capitalism, Celmins instead asks for a careful consideration of space and time. Viewing works like Untitled (Moon Image) in a slow and methodical way rewards the audience with a true understanding of the temporal and its relationship to artistic process.

Impeccable in its detail and masterful in its skill, Untitled (Moon Image) is an unequivocal representation of Celmins’s technical abilities. Rendered in graphite, the composition might be taken for a black and white photograph at first glance. The precision with which Celmins reproduces the rocks, dust, shadows, and crevices of her photographic source is nothing short of masterful. A certain softness is present due to the malleable pencil’s interaction with the bite of the paper, but this delicate quality is countered by the addition of two distinct cross marks visible in the original scientific image that are telling the artist’s own methodical approach to appropriation. Though there is a barely noticeable tilt to the picture plane, the majority of the subject is flat against the surface. The source was originally cropped in to survey the lunar surface, its mechanical eye capturing the rocks and dust in impersonal detail. There was little thought given to dynamic composition or exciting framing as the camera recorded an impartial view of the extraterrestrial scene.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Celmins began investigating the relationship between drawing and mechanical reproduction. Her subjects often sprang from photographs that she culled from various sources and focused on ideas about space and distance. Untitled (Moon Image), completed in the same year as the NASA moon landing, is one of her reproductions and ruminations on a series of photographs depicting the surface of the moon. Published by NASA, these black-and-white images are clinical and scientific; the hairline cross of a framing or focusing element endemic to the camera is visibly overlaid on the subject. Celmins recreates this stark, technological scene in meticulous detail, her expert pencil mimicking the grain of the space-faring film. By working from images like these, Celmins brings exacting focus to her process and its ability to instill even the coldest image with a startling level of humanity.

In her drawings, the artist has often fixated on a single motif spread over multiple works. Images of the moon, the ocean, and the night sky inhabit her catalogue in quiet reverence. Though her oeuvre is also dappled with paintings and minutely-constructed sculptures, it is Celmins’ mastery of graphite that has been the most continuous and defining trend throughout her career. “Even the smallest brush is a clutzier, clumsier tool; then you use this very sharp thing,” Celmins once noted while speaking with the artist Chuck Close: “You can pin the drawing to the paper on the point. Each point is like a point of consciousness. So it is like a record of having been there, which is probably what you like because we’re both artists. You get to be very intimate with the process of putting down the point of the pencil. I like it at that moment. I like the fact that I didn’t have to smudge or erase, or push or pull" (V. Celmins, in conversation with in C. Close, op. cite., p. 136). Working in grayscale, works like Untitled (Moon Image) are potent examples of the artist’s ability to translate mechanical images into startling treatises on the depth of human observation and focus.

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