Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 24, 2019
Gary Garrels, ed. Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory Exh. cat. San Francisco and New Haven, CT: SFMoMA and Yale University Press, 2018. 272 pp.; 230 color ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780300234213)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, December 15, 2018–March 31, 2019; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, May 4–August 5, 2019; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 24, 2019–January 12, 2020

Alongside modernism’s medium specificity arose a historical distinction between “higher” and “lower” forms, attendant to those media. In such accounts, certain media are presented as agents of distraction and spectacle, others as vessels for sustained attention. That is: the oil painting or the TV set, presented in stark contrast. As scholars have dismantled such essentializing of medium, a critical preference for the subjectivities of modernism persists—a rapt and purified experience, even an ethical exhortation toward patience. Indeed, following such Kantian prejudices for the absorptive, one might easily devolve into what catalogue author Suzanne Hudson critiques as an “undue emphasis on the time it takes [Vija] Celmins to complete each work” in certain accounts of the artist’s career, long recognized for her exploration of the twinned themes of medium and the absorptive experience (both for artist and viewer) of time. As Hudson notes, Celmins might stand as a (gendered) mythological figure, “a latter-day version of Penelope . . . in a succession of near-infinite labors” (131). Against such clichés regarding her work, the exhibition Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory presents an image of the artist’s work as apparently fixed but also embedded in memory, perpetually threatening to dissolve any stable experience.

The show draws viewers from the artist’s early Pop experimentation into her later career in a dazzling breadth of 140 objects, constituting nearly half her full body of completed works. The comprehensive show methodically presents each era and theme in Celmins’s career and begins with a flurry of her early Pop-adjacent works. If such works by the artist are now well documented and exhibited, To Fix the Image in Memory makes clear their stakes. Early on, we find here the humor of a six-foot-tall wooden comb and the deadpan cool of paintings of mass-produced household objects, such as a fan, an envelope, or a television. These early works are still lifes: isolated objects from the home or artist’s studio, produced in subdued tones and largely devoid of expressionistic brushstrokes. Celmins discovers potential subjects offered by the common, everyday, and mass experience.

From this early date, Celmins examines how such industrially produced household objects can generate their own set of reproducible mass images. Indeed, her painting T.V. (1964) from this period presents a television screen, a frame within a frame, that features a smoldering airplane dropping from the sky, an image appropriated from an old news photo. This work stands, catalogue author Frances Jacobus-Parker contends, as the image “severed from its geographic, historical and material conditions, transformed into a scalable image that can travel across time and space” (86). Other objects here lay bare their own mediation, as they are drawn from commercial imagery, cheap postcards, stamps, and magazine cut-outs, among other sources, then “severed” from their origins, in Jacobus-Parker’s terms. In these works from her early career, Celmins explores a battery of mass cultural images. In just one small room at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for example, curators included the artist’s paintings of bomber planes, shot-up cars, a man on fire, a rhinoceros (as in a National Geographic photography feature), trucks, trains, and freeways. These views offer explosive spectacles of modern mass-imagery, though rendered in a cool hand of limited color, often monochrome gray, and tightly packed into closely cropped frames, as if isolated from a black-and-white television. Celmins’s paintings here provide (with some exceptions) delirious objects of modernization, stripped from their accelerating logics and presented instead as akin to icons for rapt attention. This formal strategy—the cropping and isolation of the mass-cultural image, then transformed into an absorptive unit—constitutes a primary foundational tactic for both her early and mature work. Across Celmins’s career, however, that gesture of isolation and absorption contains the core of its own breakdown. Rather than heightening the distance between spectacle and the modernist fine-art object, Celmins instead uncovers their relation in visuality. The artist reveals that the oil painting and the TV set do not serve as opposite poles on a spectrum, but function in an overlapping set of perceptual concerns. Attention and distraction.

After 1968 Celmins radically bracketed the extent of her imagery. Instead of painting delirious views culled from a modernized mass culture, the artist turned her attention to depicting a starkly different sort of mass experience. Her career from then on has largely attended to the nonhuman, in a small set of subjects: oceans, galaxies, deserts, and spiderwebs. These views are presented without the orienting forms of horizons, shores, or figural content. Catalogue author Jacobus-Parker calls her process here “redescribing the image,” in which Celmins’s themes derive from photographic imagery of those subjects (85). As Celmins characterizes her process in such works: “The subject was the photograph. So whatever the photograph told me, I did” (241). To address this shift, Celmins increasingly worked from 1968 onward only in the highly precise medium of graphite, with no major paintings produced again until 1985–86. In order to produce these graphite redescriptions of preexisting images, Celmins began to employ a laborious process of transfer, expertly characterized in Gary Garrels’s catalogue essay (15). The works are generally made by first constructing a light, barely there grid on the paper support (which is often visible in the finished objects, though not in printed catalogues of Celmins’s work), coated with a thinly applied acrylic ground so as to prevent the absorption of graphite. Working from the lower right corner of the paper through to the upper left, cell by cell, Celmins uses a bridge in these graphite works so as to never touch her materials. The resulting objects, rather than being just photorealistic copies, however, actively disrupt illusionism, an experience explored in both the catalogue and exhibition.

As with her earlier Pop-inflected work, Celmins pushes here at the extreme limits of attention, the absorptive experience of temporality. We find increasingly in Celmins’s objects (as especially drawn out in Suzanne Hudson’s essay) a set of indifferent views: indifferent to human desire, social experience, or personal history. Celmins’s redescriptions record a nonhuman, often cosmological time (133–35). The works provide a machinic, cyborg-like vision to attend to her disembodied spaces of oceans and galaxies. At the same time, rather than providing a stationary experience, she tends to animate or recharge those views. A key work here might be her tour de force Untitled (Ocean Steps #2) (1973), from the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. Celmins redescribes the same view of an ocean, presented seven separate times across a single, 98⅜ in. long (249.9 cm) sheet of paper in “a spectrum of increasingly dark grades of graphite,” with each of the seven panels in the drawing made with a darker pencil than the last (88). The viewer might attend here to the unevenness of Celmins’s hand-cut sheet of paper as well as the barely visible alterations across her multiple iterations of the same view. Rather than seeing these iterations in a fixed absorption, a viewer might move across the long sheet, the drawing presented perhaps as seven stills in a film sequence, along something of a cinematic dispositif, animated by shifting position and gaze. The stationary moment of vision leads to the time-bound one of both Celmins’s process and the viewer’s experience.

These forms of repetition and resemblance build on each other, and one of the key strengths of To Fix the Image in Memory is the sheer pleasure of following Celmins’s career over the course of decades. The exhibit continues chronologically, charting out the artist’s work, situating almost half her career in New York. Here she plays further with subject matter and medium. If her earliest work in the exhibition examines the proliferating images of mass culture, Celmins finds something of a return in her recent Blackboard Tableau series. In these works, the artist constructs nearly identical reproductions of small blackboard slates, the sort used for schoolroom writing, which are each placed alongside the “original” found objects as a pair. With blackboards reminiscent—at least for this modern viewer—of iPads or digital tablets, Celmins produces not the overactive image-imagination of the internet, but a comparable sort of difference and repetition in her duplication of generative forms. The side-by-side objects produce Celmins’s signature movement, promising a primeval absorption (the predigital) before sharply denying it in an oscillation between the two nearly blank blackboards, offering a recurrent movement for her viewers. These stand as a continuation of the artist’s examination of reproducible and proliferating images, the readymade, and the absorptive experience of the object.

The show provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to evaluate Celmins’s work, developed intensively across a handful of subjects over the course of decades. The catalogue offers a similar boon, in a series of six crisp essays (most around a half-dozen pages long), each of which examines Celmins’s work from a different perspective, ranging from the technical to the contextual to the phenomenological. The brevity of the texts, each of which are highly readable, means that many readers might actually read the book cover to cover. The downside to this approach, however, is that certain themes are never broached. How might, for example, questions of gender align with those of Celmins’s redescriptive practice (as has become an important consideration in parallel accounts of contemporaneous Pop artists)? The catalogue concludes with a set of valuable curatorial and scholarly apparatuses: a compilation of selected interview portions with the artist, a detailed chronology of her life, and extensive exhibition histories and bibliographies, providing an extraordinary resource for future work on Celmins. In bringing together so much artistic and historical material, both the exhibition and catalogue stand as triumphs to Celmins’s ongoing career.

David Sledge
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University