When Vija Celmins (Riga, Russia, 1938) begins his career in the United States in the early sixties, his work exemplifies the possibility of a style different to the dominant inheritance bequeathed by American Abstract Expressionism. Nevertheless, in some of his drawings and paintings the influence of Jasper Johns in the resignification (or the neutrality of signs) of everyday objects can be seen. With over seventy works, including drawings, paintings and objects, this exhibition illustrates the artistic ideals of Celmins, already visible in 1964 and based on a litany of principles of austerity and essentiality, "not composition, gestures, artificial colour, deformation, anxiety or effort, or echo (impassive paintings)."The tour not only allows us to discovery these principles, but it shows the dispute between figure and field and how he manages to merge the two terms in such a way that the image becomes the picture. As noted by James Lingwood, curator of the exhibition, "there is no longer a central figure that draws attention to a certain part of the picture, no hierarchy of the image on the surface."
At first Celmins specifies his world of reference in his study and creates paintings from everyday objects in the foreground such as, the stove switched on, the fan, the steaming electric pot or a gun that has just gone off. Giving these objects a status of images, Celmins’ objective is to manifest concentrated presences which contain a lot of tension, so that the life of the objects are the modern painting’s new stories. Without abandoning the creation of images and reducing his palette to greys and the use of graphite, in the late sixties he begins to incorporate photography and newspaper clippings as iconographic sources. Again, the foreground -as in the case of airplanes or automobiles- nullifies any possibility to create scenes and stories. Furthermore, at this time his interest in surface areas is aroused: of the ocean, the lunar surface, the desert or galaxies, which he manifests through the realisation of series which reveal his shift towards the intensity of a description of the surface. Examples include: Immense Sea (1969), Ocean with Cross (1971). Galaxy-Cassiopeia (1973). Star Field (1982-1983) or Night Sky (1994-1996).
In his work Celmins insists on the principle of art as a representation of reality. In addition to his paintings and drawings, the piece To Capture the Image of Memory (1977-1982) in this regard is an experimental test of his conception of art. On a table there lie several pairs of stones, one is real, found; the other is an identical copy, which he created. Thus, the artist doesn’t speak of false or true -whether referring to stones or the surface of the sea- but of reality and its image.
Institute of Contemporany Art, London (November 1 - December 22, 1996); Kunstmuseum Winterthur (April 19 - June 15, 1997); Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (June 20 - September 28, 1997)