Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins is the subject of a major retrospective that’s just opened at SFMOMA, called To Fix the Image in Memory. It spans her career of more than 50 years, capturing what might otherwise be seen as mundane surroundings to the minutest detail. Although there are different periods and interests within her works, curator Gary Garrels says the common thread is a close observation of what’s around her in daily life.
There’s more information about the exhibition at the SFMOMA website.
The retrospective is a collaboration between SFMOMA and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one that Gary Garrels says he’s been pursuing for the past decade (the construction of the new building contributed to some of the delay). “It’s been a long process, but I have to say it also reflects the way Vija Celmins approaches her own work. The work is slow, it takes time, she thinks about it, goes back, thinks about it again. And that really is the way this exhibition has developed. So it’s been a wonderful kind of dialogue with the artist.” She describes her finding her own artistic voice as a process of letting go. “I’d been in school, so I had too many ideas in my head. I thought I had to back up. And I think the backing up became a big thing for me all through my work. And I backed up to just looking, and putting all the ideas, my mind, sort of away for a while.” So in the early days, she painted realistic canvases of the mundane surroundings of a poor artist’s studio: a hotplate, lamp, lots of still lifes of food. Then (she jokes, after running out of still lifes to paint) she turned her attention to painting pictures of newspaper clippings, which tended to have disastrous subjects. It was when she lived in Venice, California, near the pier that she began to recreate photos she took of the ocean surface in charcoal and graphite. “I fell in love with the grays. And I had been doing giant paintings like every other person in the early ’60s, you know, in school, so I dropped down. I was like throwing stuff away. Dropped down to a small area, but made it strong. Throwing things away that I thought were decorative, that were not right. And I decided to pick up the pencil, using graphite, which is a material as fabulous as paint.”