Vija Celmins at the Met Breuer


Having entered into her 80s, Vija Celmins can be looked at with an objectivity relegated to major artists late in their career. The artist’s drawings have become essays in detailed amazement, the images of the sea especially. Celmins is not a determinedly conceptual artist, but her work invokes an interest in intellectual perception, achieved by a stunning technique, both with graphite and oil. Her paintings, among them of a space heater, of a smoking pistol, of a truck and cars on a freeway in Los Angeles, relegate the object to a mystical status, in which its essential quiddity takes on the aura of something inspired, made so by the care of Celmins’ art. Technical skill, in Celmins’ case, amounts to a deliberate affection for the object being described, no matter how superficially ungainly or mundane that object may be. This kind of care is increasingly rare in contemporary art; we prefer a one-off ephemerality, in which the experience of the works holds sway over its visual cohesiveness. But experience is notoriously unstable as an art form, being better understood as the consequence of being involved with an action over time rather than being understood as an object in its own right.

If we are interpreting actions and activities as perpetuating what we used to understand as objects, then it might be said that, in Celmin’s case, skill itself might be seen as an object. How does one give skill a physical dimension? The drawings of the ocean and the night sky, central to the artist’s achievement, are of course objects, but they were created with an ability that itself must be admired, more or less separate from the image alone. Why should we do that? Because in a current climate in which almost all high culture is considered the result of entitlement rather than a achievement in its own right, skill has been belittled and needs to be valued in its own right–thus elevating it to object status. Without skill, the image often (but not always) becomes ephemeral–an ode to the momentary creativity that produced it. But this means that from the start the image was not meant to last! This is both the strength and the weakness of time-based art, which relies on duration to make the point that nothing lasts forever. But we know that already–ever since the readymades of Duchamp, who mischievously, and also maliciously, reworked the Mona Lisa, the West’s most iconic painting, into a woman with a moustache. However radical this may be–and it was very much so at the time–it is also inevitably a sophomoric stunt done by a disgruntled artist who had given up painting for some time. This was done in 1919, exactly one hundred years ago, so the surprise and cultivated revolt of the picture has become old hat.

Given this history of deliberate debasement of high culture, how are we to proceed? Maybe, we need to return to esthetic techniques so old as to be irreplaceable–in Celmins’ case, graphite, a venerable art medium, is central to her achievement as a draftsperson, someone working on highly detailed studies of water, themselves a silent repudiation of egotistical expressiveness. It takes a selfless nature to be committed to a skill that may take a long time to learn; moreover, skill itself cannot be considered anything but neutral in regard to an artist’s achievement, which rests upon our experience of the image we see (skill is not a visibly prominent attribute in art in the way that an image is). Celmins’ series of ocean drawings deliver a dense surface, as well as an imagery that is expressionistically neutral, being only about itself rather than the putting forth of emotional outcries meant to excite the audience. This neutrality, coupled with the great oceanic unity of Celmins’ imagery (almost always on the small side in demensions), results in works of art notable not only for their measure and their restraint, but also for their grand unity and cohesiveness.

The sea studies look generally the same, but of course are different in minute ways. In Untitled (Big Sea #1) (1969), the dark image, made with graphite, consists of innumerable small ripples that indicate an active but not overly restless surface. The rise and fall of the water offers Celmins’ audience a sense of the inevitable, constant fluidity of the ocean–an image of infinity in a very small dimension! The play of light and dark on the diminutive waves gives a luminous tone to the drawing, which is mesmerizing in its minute perspective and detail. This is truly an all-over image; no center of focus exists as the edges, right and left and top and bottom, are as particular and salient as the composition’s center, even if we instinctively gravitate toward the latter. But, in regard to content, what can we say about the image’s meaning? The sea is meant to evoke feelings of majesty, of quiet, of loss of control in the form of a troubled surface. In the case of the works on view, Celmins is resolute in her portrayal of the complexity of the surface, as opposed to a Romantic or symbolic notion of the loss of control. Indeed, the exquisite detail and finely distinguished forms argue for a restrained understanding of bodies of water, known not for their measure but for their inability to be controlled. Whatever motive Celmins may have had, exactly a half century ago, pales in light of the picture, whose tonal values, exquisite density, and inspired continuity of transmission add up to a genuine vision of art mediating nature.

An equally interesting, detailed, but much later drawing, called Falling Star (2016) presents a night sky dense with stars, and the image of a falling star descending in close to the exact middle of the vertical composition. We know that Celmins did a lot of work in her night sky series, in which the palpable darkness of the sky was lit by myriad points of light. The artist works with dense detail on a regular basis, building up a surface in which the darkness serves as a ground for pinpricks of luminosity–the image may be working as a metaphysical reading of the healing property of light in the face of a world surrounding us with a lack of luminescence. The image of a falling star, rather impartially given in this drawings, is actually a trope of rare romantic form. Here it has a tail above it as dives toward lower depths. The strength of Celmins’ work in general is its technical command, coupled with a visionary insight into phenomena considered either too ordinary–space heaters, seawater–or too beautiful–night skies, stars, spiderwebs–for us to fully appreciate in their own right. But the artist’s eye and hand are inspired enough to reinvent the terms of her subjects’ seeming ordinariness. Thus, the artist reinvents her subject matter by rendering it alive by means of extraordinary particularity.

Does Celmins’ deliberate beauty constitute a rebellion against the deliberate roughening of subject matter in much of contemporary art? But even if this were true, does it matter? In art today, we are placing more and more emphasis on social issues, intent as we are on democratizing culture. Doing so has both positive and negative aspects–a larger audience is to be welcomed, but the quality of the vision and the work may be of a lesser sort, done in the hopes of doing away with cultivated hierarchies. The truth is that Celmins is not openly committed to either point of view–she uses her own sensibility, neither demotic nor aristocratic, to example a point of view bordering on the sublime, which is emotionally high, but not necessarily socially or intellectually elitist. This has kept her out of controversy, but, more important, it relates her belief in an art in which wonder is a constantly present element. The wonder is achieved by the extreme skill possessed by the artist. One senses that the artist is rather modest about her own gifts, but her quiet precision is startlingly beautiful in her drawings, which display little rhetoric but are completely convincing nonetheless.

Desert Surface (1991), like the other drawings a tour-de-force of detail, consists of a light tan ground, onto which Celmins has drawn fissures, vertical and horizontal and sometimes connected to each other, which divide up the background into nearly regular smaller compartments. The space is remarkable for its sameness of experience throughout the composition, but it is a sameness that is quietly but consistently undermined by the uneven cracks in the caked sand. Celmins’ art usually isn’t about anything but what she sees, but this, in the long run, is a freedom rather than a constraint. We can only remark on the particularity of her hand, which quietly but decisively creates surfaces notable for their incalculable, fine distinction. As a result, even when the subject matter Celmins chooses to illustrate is ordinary–and it often is–her audience finds the theme to move beyond illustration into a place of notable anticipation and realization of form. Desert Surface commands no meaning beyond its own details, but the details are so richly imagined as to be visionary despite their thematic ubiquity. This is achieved by the extreme gifts of the artist, whose fineness of hand cannot be overly praised.

Celmins, now an octogenarian, was fully adult in the Sixties, when pop art was in its prime. This may account for the humility of her chosen subjects; and there is, as well, a larger-than-life pencil and several red-gum erasers available in the show, the only sculptures to be seen, notable for their lack of majesty as things. How does one explain the paring of an exquisite skill and style with motifs of such a modest aura? It is, in one way, a dumbing down of the high principles supposedly animating the artist, but it is also a widening of possibilities for representation. This democratization of the image likely goes back to Warhol, who championed a certain sameness of culture so that everyone would have a chance to enjoy what was available. Perceived levels of high, middle, and low culture no longer are no longer useful in a time when museums such as the Modern Museum of Art in New York have deliberately re-worked their space, and their rhetoric, into a language favoring the direct, immediate internalization of imagery that is bound in no way to any hierarchy. (It is amusing to see this taking place on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in New York, in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world!) But, to her credit, Celmins escapes the more monotonous aspects of cultural leveling simply by being as good as she is.

Heater (1968) is a classic example of an object personified by attention to detail. It is a simple appliance with a black handle that doesn’t take up much space, its gray metal surface is close in tonality to the much larger brown background that surrounds it. But behind the wire grill is an orange mass: the radiating heat thus escaping from the metal elements generating it. It is only what it is, but it is all that it is, thus presupposing some sort of nearly metaphysical importance–this despite the fact that there is nothing novel about it. As an ode to the comfort we expect to modern industrial culture, Heater, Celmins makes clear, exists in practice to warm us but is self-referential in the extreme as industrial design. The image, deliberately, lowly, connects to Pop art’s interest in the ordinary, a state of being that leaves no one out. But for viewers interested in expanding the meaning of the picture, it is also an inferno, whose heat may have symbolic meaning. Yet it is hard to say. To ascribe a high intention to the portrayal of so humble an object is to overvalue the metaphorical content of the painting, which seems to reside in the inspired treatment of something we take for granted.

Two earlier works–Gun #1 (1964) and Flying Fortress (1966)–likely suggest the shock of pervasive American violence and the memory of the Second World War, respectively. The gun has a disembodied arm and hand holding it; it has just gone off, leaving the smoke of its discharge surrounding it. Isolated in the way that it is, the image is impersonal, that is, unless one’s life had been directly or indirectly affected by easy access to weapons and the disastrous events resulting from such access. The smoking pistol does not appear to have harmed anyone; no one is lying on a floor to accompany the image. Still, violence is more than suggested; it looks much too ubiquitous to be dismissed as a visual prank on the part of Celmins. The large bomber might well have personal meaning for the artist, born in 1938–early enough to have distinct memories of wartime. The image is of an immense plane, in mid-air, surrounded by a sky very close in color to that of the aircraft. It is impersonal; we see it from a distance, so that it is impossible to see the men in the plane, which sails by us with the imperturbable weight of a major monument–whose object of interest is aggression from a distance.

Interestingly, not only Flying Fortress but all the images in the show look to an impartial focus, in which Celmins shows her feeling for what she is rendering via exquisite skill, not by means of unmediated feeling. There is an objectivity of report in everything she does–to the point where she has effectively removed herself from her output. So there is a selflessness in Celmins’ art that goes against the expressive mode Americans are so used to championing in visual culture. By acting in accordance with restraint, by preferring measured skill to outbursts of emotion, the artist demonstrates just how effective a silent self may be–as an alternative to our penchant for an egotistical sublime. Quietly, but with inspired confidence, Celmins posits a universe of objects whose meaning is generated by our response, not hers. This means that her usefulness as an artist correlates with her modesty of visual attack, in ways that escape the meaning of the general audience, taken as we are with over-calculating personal involvement in the works we see. Perhaps that is why Celmins has become so necessary an artist–by being a creative person who does not beat the drum of her achievement, she maintains contact with a different kind of ingenuity. Her skill therefore speaks for itself. In a time when we are too often boasting of small achievements, Celmins makes it clear that we can find delight in the impersonal workings of the hand, and this is not so much reticence as it is the willful, energetic independence of someone whose work reflects the world as it is, free of rhetorical flourish. Such objectivity is to be much admired.

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