Vija Celmins: You're looking at a painting called The Heater, a painting I did in 1964. I was in graduate school, UCLA, about 24 years old. I was floundering around in my painting. Doing mostly abstract expressionist painting, and I fell into this period where I was throwing away a lot of ideas. So I started painting these simple paintings of objects in my studio. Like the heater you see here, and my lamps. I painted my refrigerator, all the food. And the idea was that I wanted to kind of quiet down and just look and paint. Like eye to brain.
Tony Berlant: The irony to me always with Vija is the understated small quietness is so dramatic and engulfing. Especially during a period when people were making big, gestural, abstract, muscular paintings. She always felt that the rules did not apply to her.
Vija Celmins: I painted everything in my studio and I was starting to look for other images to use. This is a letter from 1968. And it's a letter from my mother. I used to have the letters drop in on the floor of the studio through the mail slot. I was starting to do some drawings. Giving painting a little break, and this is one of the early drawings, getting kind of used to using a pencil.
Gary Garrels: She added what look like stamps, but are very tiny drawings of war scenes, and disasters, and bombings, which recall her memories of having grown up in Europe. Her family fled her native country, Latvia, in 1944, just as the Soviet troops were invading. They spent the next four years moving between refugee camps in Germany until they were resettled to Indianapolis, where Vija then grew up. She moved there at the age of 10, not speaking any English, and drawing was something that was incredibly important for her. So this drawing of the letter, I think is a reference back to the idea of being displaced. In moving to Los Angeles, she really didn't know anybody. She was alone. And I think, obviously, this letter from her mother had some special place in her life at the time.
Nancy Lim: During the mid and late 60s, she was especially interested in what she called ‘impossible images’. So for example: flames, explosions, clouds. Things that are impossible to fix and pin down.
Vija Celmins: I actually had a friend who was doing houses in a very different kind of way.
Tony Berlant: I remember when Vija made these little houses, which was sort of my trademark at the time. But Vija’s had this specific quality. The drama of her very personal intense imagery.
Vija Celmins: They're World War Two images from clippings that I had started collecting. Looking for images that were maybe a little more connected with myself.
Tony Berlant: I very much remember Vija telling me the experience of running through the streets with buildings on fire all around her during a bombing raid.
Vija Celmins: Kind of a going back over my childhood, and I think this, especially the houses, look a little bit like toys, which is kind of nice.
Nancy Lim: One opens up and the other does not. The fur, it's real fox fur. And so you might look at it and immediately think this is so soft. How nice would it feel if I put my arm in there, but who knows what's at the bottom…
Vija Celmins: I always liked planes. And I wanted to be a pilot for a while.
Gary Garrels: Suspended Plane catches one’s eye immediately because of this huge object suspended in the sky. It's floating, and then I think fairly quickly one understands that the propellers aren't moving. So it's, again, a kind of preposterous situation.
Vija Celmins: I consider the painting, one of the great parts of it, that it's still and flat and, and that it has a picture plane that stays where it is all the time, and that I had this moving thing in there, and then I had somehow subdued it.
Gary Garrels: Celmins made a number of very deliberate decisions in making her early paintings. She wanted to get rid of color. She didn't want to invent compositions. So all of the subjects are taken from something observed in life or from clippings.
Vija Celmins: I was looking for images everywhere. Or they were looking for me, I don't know. Anyway, I found these pictures from World War 2, it was like my whole life from when I was five and six opened up and I thought – and then I also like the grayness, I fell for the greyness of the reproductions. I document the image from the photo. I'm not really mimicking it, I'm putting it in a totally different world.
Vija Celmins: I used to walk my dog on Venice Beach. And I was hunting for images, you know, like I hunt for the image, and then I put it in another context. That's pretty much what I do.
Tony Berlant: I remember the first time I saw a whole bunch of photographs sitting just inside her front window and saying you know, what, what are these? And she said, oh, those are just some photographs I took from the end of the pier.
Vija Celmins: I wanted to kind of get down to a more specific spatial thing. So I picked up the pencil. I started drawing and I thought of it like a documentation of one surface onto another one.
Gary Garrels: She did not allow herself to erase at any point. This is all just building up the image through a series of different strokes and letting parts of the paper become more apparent. So the lighter sections are where there's more of the paper showing through. And if she made mistakes, then the drawing was destroyed.
In looking at them, they're rather like small miracles that anyone could have this amount of focus and attention and the kind of magic of transforming a very ordinary photograph into this extraordinary object.
Tony Berlant: For decades, I lived with one of these pictures and it feels like the dream not quite remembered. It's almost like these pieces have a scent or a taste to them. Not just what you see visually but a kind of feeling state that's subtle—they're very much outside of category. And what's left is Vija.
Vija Celmins: Maybe what I would like is the viewer to have an experience that is a sort of a waking up experience like drawing in a breath and saying, “Oh!”
Nancy Lim: Welcome to the audio guide for Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory. I'm Nancy Lim, assistant curator of painting and sculpture here at SFMOMA.
Gary Garrels: I'm Gary Garrels, the Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA. This is an exhibition I've been thinking about and planning and working on for almost 10 years and I hope you will find it as engaging as I have.
Nancy Lim: We'll also be hearing from Celmins' longtime friend and fellow artist Tony Berlant.
Tony Berlant: I think I first met Vija around 1962. She was just so technically accomplished.
Vija Celmins: Most of my work and the images I work with come from my own ordinary life activities. I’m not a symbolic painter or political painter, I don’t have any real big message in that way. It’s a looking experience.
Vija Celmins: I found this little piece of wood out on the dunes in the middle of Death Valley in California, which had little cracks on it and it was so dry. And I put it in my pocket. Later, when I came back to New York, I took it out and it had this very wonderful quality of fineness—the cracks were so tiny. And I thought that I might try to make a painting that had that surface on it. You know, sometimes you have like moments when everything comes together. This is one of those moments. It's like a little inspirational moment. And then, what you have to do is you have to prolong that moment all of that time that it takes to make the painting.
It’s a painting you really have to relate to walking toward it. Getting very, very close, you see how very handmade it is. Then stepping back a little bit it, it just crystallizes together. And then, the part that's the desert is just like a ghost that hovers behind it. But the real experience is right there in the gallery between the viewer and the painting.
Nancy Lim: What you're looking at here is To Fix the Image in Memory. You can see that there are 22 stones. 11 of them are found, and 11 of them are bronze casts that she painted.
Vija Celmins: Usually, when people look at this piece, they have no idea what they're looking at. Some people thought that I had found two stones that look exactly the same. And they ask me where I found those. So there's an element, I think, of inviting you to look. And a sort of an element of surprise and maybe a chuckle.
Tony Berlant: Well, I think that the rocks she makes feel more inhabited than the rocks that are a natural object. And even if I couldn't quickly tell you which one is which, it calls to mind that this is a creation.
Vija Celmins: For me, as the artist, the making is the meaning. It was a meditation on really how much I could see. And sort of a meditation of looking at nature. This piece took about four to five years. Of course, I didn't work on it all the time. I never work all the time. I work, I stop, I work, I stop. But this was the focus for me for a long time. And I painted it chip by chip myself, having the experience of looking very intensely. And I mean it was like trying to fix it in my memory, so that it really stayed.
Nancy Lim: In 1973, Celmins rented a house in a small New Mexico town and was looking every night at the night sky. So it was a combination of that experience with finding satellite pictures of the Coma Berenices and Cassiopeia constellations that resulted in this series.
Vija Celmins: These are kind of places that really don't exist except in your mind because we have only seen them in photographs. You can see that there is a central event that I sometimes veer toward, but most of them are fields. For a while I thought I would try to put an event in like a little comet, but I was not so satisfied with that.
I was building up a lot of graphite on the paper and moving into loving the graphite more than the image. I think you see, looking at the graphite that I get denser and denser and denser with it.
What I did here is, these drawings are all additions, and the white is all the paper. I don't really think of them as stars. I mean, they’re stars, but not stars. I think of them like undetonated kind of little bombs in this area that I have to go around and articulate so that they sit correctly on the page.
This is too much talking isn’t it?
Gary Garrels: In the 1990s, the night sky was the primary subject in Celmins work and she made several paintings over several years of different variants of the night sky. Some are incredibly deep, dense, dark, and others become very luminous.
Vija Celmins: I like that I was making this thing that wanted to be a deep space and that you desire to go into this painting. You have a desire for the depth because you know in your head that this outer space and I have put a stop to the space by making something kind of flat, you know? They've been painted over and over and over. I was trying to get a feeling of some kind of mass in the work and some kind of a feeling of weight, and they are kind of heavy feeling paintings. They're also paintings that change as you go up to them. Because from far away, they're only proportion, you know, you see black proportion. And when you get close to them, you begin to see the image, and hopefully you have a kind of a surprise.
So I like the idea that actually the space in front of you is impenetrable, but it refers to a space that…that is endless.
Vija Celmins: Hubble is a little drawing I did for NASA. They wanted to think that artists were interested in space, which I think a lot of artists are. But I'm not interested in illustrating space or anything. I'm interested in just an image that I, myself, can very subtly manipulate and fit in this new reality, which is right in front of me.
I got to go see NASA in Florida and where they send off the rockets, which was a really fine thing to see. I made it, I gave it to Hubble, then I made it again, which I often like to do.
What was interesting was trying to make a work that was black. Very interesting, very hard. Paintings tend to be very closed off, they're all on the surface. The drawings let you in a little bit more, and I have put the charcoal on with my hands. Normal—I like very thin charcoal, real pieces of charcoal. And then, the the image has been made by erasure. Because the charcoal is just dust, you know. So it's very easy to erase.
Vija Celmins: I think I just came upon this photograph of a web and I was thinking, “My God, this guy, the spider, was, you know, doing my drawings, reflecting a beautiful two-dimensional plane.”
Nancy Lim: She found this image in the early 1990s. One of the things that she liked about it was that it felt a little bit lonely and she's always liked that quality in her source images.
Tony Berlant: They're very seductive in making you want to look at them. It's understated, but it is that Vija thing of drawing you in.
Vija Celmins: I found myself sort of remembering about lines. I'm not a line person. You know, I'm a mass person. I kind of organize masses.
Nancy Lim: She realized there was something too exciting about the spider web. You know, its connotations of despair and of breaking down and of age. There was something that seemed so sensational, she wanted to leave all of that behind.
Vija Celmins: I wanted the images to stay more bland so you would focus more on really how they were made or how were they were not made. So I stopped. Because I'm always stopping and starting and thinking about what painting might be.
Nancy Lim: In the 2000s, Celmins returned to making objects, including this set of blackboards. There are three found tablets, and seven made tablets.
Gary Garrels: I find them entrancing because you really slow down and try to determine which one is the original, the found object, and which one is the one that's been created. And I must say, I still find it extremely difficult to figure out which one is which.
Vija Celmins: I had moved my studio out in the country and I was beginning to see some old stuff in used junk stores, and kind of waking up to it. Many of the blackboards seemed to be about a hundred years old. And they had all these scratches and all this kind of, what I would say romantic atmosphere to it, which I would not allow myself to do in my own work, but which I could mimic now in doing the blackboards. So I went on a little blackboard craze. I must have done about twenty.
Gary Garrels: Blackboards are a way that we bring something into our memory—that, you know, by writing something on a blackboard it embeds it in our brain in a way that doesn't happen until we write it down. And then it's erased. And it only remains then as a memory. So I think these works are very resonant because of that, the relationship between image, mark-making, and memory.
Vija Celmins: This piece is very much like the stone piece. Like a very careful looking. And a chance to paint. A chance for me to paint.
Gary Garrels: I have to say, I became obsessed by this painting and continue to think about it over and over again. For me, it's one of her most beautiful paintings. One begins to understand the sense of time that's embedded in it.
Vija Celmins: It's a painting and it's also like an object, like the book itself is sort of pushing on the edges of the painting. And it's about the same size and it gave me a chance to indulge in using blues. I found these Japanese books when I had a show in Tokyo, and I found them in a used kind of pile on the floor in a flea market.
Nancy Lim: Every crack and fold and worn away edge is re-described. So you see a sliver of shadow along the right hand side of the book, a little bit along the bottom, as well as the left edge. And so you recognize that's a very thin book sitting on top of the canvas.
Gary Garrels: There's a sense that it's been in someone's possession where the surface has been rubbed and stressed and deteriorated. So it becomes a record of a lived life. And a book itself is a record of memory, of imagination. And so, the work of art itself becomes, I think, a kind of metaphor for what a book is.
Nancy Lim: Celmins began making permutations of the Night Sky in 2000, reversing the color schema of her Night Skies. So instead of white stars on a black background, she did the opposite: black stars painted onto a white field.
Vija Celmins: So it has such a different, different space. I don't think it's a very object-like painting anymore. The space is much more ambiguous. You can maybe go into it a little bit. It's a little dreamier.
Gary Garrels: The Reverse Night Skies also allow a wonderful little bit of color to come into the work. And they have a kind of sense of hovering presence, of something that is more ethereal, more indeterminate, more open.
Vija Celmins: It's like a new set of things for me to try to solve. So I emphasized the edges to emphasize a little bit that I know about the restrictions of this space. That it's not quite an object, but sort of made into –like let's not go and dream out to the walls. Let's stop here.
My whole career, I have gone between object, image of object, and work as object, and work now moving away with larger paintings as not object. I don’t know how to describe it. Those things come from inside.
You can leave that in. That might be nice.
So … can I go now?
Gary Garrels: In some cases, Celmins spends years working on a single work. It goes through a long process of looking, changing, looking again. Thinking about it, remembering. A relationship develops, I think, between Celmins and the work so that it becomes a very living experience.
Vija Celmins: I had done this little tiny painting in 1986. The woman who owned the painting died and I got the painting back, which hardly ever happens, which is so great.
Nancy Lim: She hadn't made paintings of the ocean in a really long time.
Vija Celmins: So sometimes you see a work you've done a long time ago and you forgot that maybe it was, kind of had some terrific qualities to it. Uh, but I had it in my studio and I thought, “Oh my gosh! What a great image, a complicated image.” I was like almost 30 years older. And I wanted to see if I could do it again. So I did it again.
So this work is the same image done with a totally different kind of beginning every time. Different colors, different time, different age. It took me another four and a half, almost five years to do the other five paintings. But it's an homage to the first painting that I can still manage this very knotted surface that I found about 50 years ago in a National Geographic Magazine.
Harley Rustad in conversation with Sarain Fox to launch his new book, Big Lonely Doug: the story of one of Canada's last great trees. Big Lonely Doug, is the nickname given to a 226 foot tall Douglas Fir tree located in a clearcut in B.C.'s Gordon River Valley. Around 39 feet in circumference, Big Lonely Doug is estimated to be about 1,000 years old.
World-renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier converse with AGO Director of Public Programs Devyani Saltzman about Anthropocene, their powerful series of new photographs, large-scale murals augmented by film extensions, film installations and augmented reality (AR) installations, that take us to places we are deeply connected to – but normally never see. Informed by scientific research, powered by aesthetic vision, inspired by a desire to bear witness, they reveal the scale and gravity of our impact on the planet.
Join scholar Meseret Oldjira for a talk exploring the artistic achievements that characterize the ancient and medieval heritage of Ethiopian art while highlighting the Ethiopian artworks on view at the AGO.
In 2015 Dr. Brian McCrindle donated 170 prints, drawings and sculptures by German artist, Käthe Kollwitz to the Art Gallery of Ontario. What motivated Dr. McCrindle to build and now gift this extraordinary collection? He is joined by Brenda Rix, curator of the exhibition, Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life, for a discussion of the importance of Kollwitz’s art and the relevance of her compelling images in today’s world.