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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

"Vija Celmins: A Drawings Retrospective," Jan. 28-Apr. 22, 2007, at the UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca. 90024

It isn’t every artist whose exhibition catalogue would feature an excerpt from a novel by Colm Toíbín, but the inclusion is adroit for "Vija Celmins: A Drawings Retrospective." Celmins’ pictures murmur in a precise and restrained voice, very much in keeping with that of the Irish author. Organized by the Centre Pompidou’s curator Jonas Storsve, the show -- 65 works in all -- has been installed by curator Gary Garrels at L.A.’s Hammer Museum with room to breathe.

The large galleries are hung chronologically with Celmins’ drawings of the surface of the moon, the surface of the Pacific Ocean and the surface of the Mohave desert. Ranging from the 1960s and today, the emphatic neutrality of Celmins’ images holds the romantic implications of the dreamy subject matter in check. All were rendered from photographs. There is no beckoning horizon line typical of an ocean or desert view -- just a rigorous attention to patterns of stars or waves or pebbles. The graphite covering the paper is another surface, made legible in her earliest pieces by delineating the edge of her photographic source.

Noticing that many of these drawings were executed around the same time that John Baldessari had his first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, I asked Celmins if her work’s relationship to photography came from a connection to early Conceptual art. She said no, but added that her work was often compared to that of Gerhard Richter, who she felt was more of a Conceptual painter.

Like Richter, Celmins was a child in war-torn Europe. Born in Riga, Lativa in 1938, Celmins’ childhood memories are largely of survival, traveling with her parents around Europe trying to avoid both the Russians and the Nazis. In 1948, the family managed to get to Indianapolis, where Celmins was enrolled in school. Since she could not speak English, she spent her first years drawing. Her mature style of drawing evinces such a stubborn, ritualistic concentration that one can easily imagine it as a form of solace, a retreat from uncertain events. Celmins entered the art department of UCLA on a grant in 1962, the same year that Walter Hopps organized the first Pop art exhibition, "The New Painting of Common Objects," at the Pasadena Art Museum. Though she didn’t personally see that show, the atmosphere in L.A. was clearly conducive to her decision to draw and paint reproduced images or mundane objects.   

Living in an apartment in sunny Venice, Ca., where she would walk her dog to the pier to look at the ocean, she copied pictures of the war from books to make drawings and paintings of World War II-era airplanes, zeppelins and war disasters as a method of revisiting her past. The show includes her drawing of an envelope addressed to her from her mother in Indiana, collaged with postage stamps that Celmins had drawn with tiny images of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  

This facile gift for realism in the early 1960s led her work to be interpreted as Post-Surrealist Pop in some circles. In "Magritte and Contemporary Art, " on view at the L.A. County Museum of Art through Mar. 4, 2007, a five-foot-tall tortoiseshell comb that she made of enamel on wood is propped next to Magritte’s Personal Values -- in that painting, a room is furnished with an identical, enormous comb, while a bed and armoire are dwarfed by the giant drinking glass, match and shaving brush. Celmins considered recreating the other objects in that picture as well, but instead made giant erasers and modest, luminous oil paintings of a fan, a toaster, a lamp and sundry ordinary items. These decisions led her work to be lumped with artists associated with the nascent Pop movement at the time. Today, looking at the work, even those early pieces appear to be more aligned with Giorgio Morandi than Andy Warhol. A visit to the drawing retrospective underscores how far Celmins’ practice deviated from the thinking and action of the Pop artists -- there is no trace of irony.

Celmins is possessed of the long view, and it is literally in place in her drawings of constellations, spots of light in sooty skies, again based on photographs. Occasionally presented as diptychs with the desert floors, their interplay of light and dark, soft and hard, is exacting. She documents places above and below that exist outside of history, as elements of air, water, earth. The graphite becomes as thick as paint, a fact which led her to quit making them in 1983. She had moved to New York, that city of painters, two years before and began pursuing similar themes via paint. In 1994, she returned to drawing but the later works are softer, rendered with charcoal and erasure. The night sky returned. She added a series of spider webs, those wildly intricate acts of temporary architecture.

In almost half a century, Celmins has not departed much from her original concerns. The passage of time is inherent in the chronological survey of the pictures as well as in the pictures themselves, which take ever so long to complete. Anachronistic in the 1960s, they seem positively transcendental in today’s frenzied atmosphere, while at the same time defying nostalgia or sentimentality. Celmins’ art remains as constant and reassuring as the waves lapping the beach or the stars in the sky, bidding us to take our own time to pause and reflect.

By the way, the Toíbín novel included in the catalogue is titled Taking My Time.

HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.