John Vincler’s column Brush Strokes examines what is it that we can find in paintings in our increasingly digital world.
Open sea water seen from above. Star-filled skies. Stones. Gray after gray: from the graphite of pencils, charcoal on paper and its erasure, oil paint in layer after layer of deep, smooth near-black. Forays into ochre and midnight blues, the earthen tones of sand and stone, then returning seemingly always to gray. Before seeing the objects, works on paper, and paintings gathered together at the Met Breuer for the immense Vija Celmins’s retrospective, “To Fix the Image in Memory,” I had previously witnessed the gnostic perfection of the later paintings of ocean waves and night skies. The Breuer exhibition was the first time I was able to trace in person the artist’s development from the early paintings of objects and appliances in her studio (a hot plate, a fan, a lamp) to her distinctive late work. What I didn’t anticipate from this exhibition was the suggestion of utter desolation.
I should say that Vija Celmins paintings are not about this sense of foreboding. The artist has said, “I am not interested in telling stories.” And yet art exhibitions, career retrospectives in particular, do engage in storytelling. What is an exhibition but an essay written with objects in three dimensional space? Celmins’s biography and the sequence and development of her work proceed in an ordered and coherent fashion across two floors of the Breuer. Vija Celmins was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1938, two years before the Soviet occupation. A decade after her birth, her family moved to the United States where they settled in Indiana. Clemens drew animals in her notebook in the back of the classroom while the teacher spoke in a still-unfamiliar foreign language, English. After earning her B.F.A. in Indiana, she headed to California as an art student in the M.F.A. program at University of California, Los Angeles, where she would find a studio near the beach outside of downtown Venice. Here the studio interior itself became her object of study, particularly the functional objects within it. The resulting paintings read more like portraits of inanimate objects than still lives. A lamp stares back at the viewer with its two bulbs, the orange coils of the heater and hot plate in two separate paintings glow with an almost palpable animal heat from their gray perches on the floor and a shelf respectively.