The Vija Celmins exhbition curated by Gary Garrels at SF MoMA is very beautiful. Quiet, reflective, deep, it gives one the perfect January pause, a diet for the mind and spirit. Though born in Europe, California gave Celmins, who attended UCLA, some of her greatest subjects: ocean, sky and desert. Her rendering of a craggy, desert landscape with its rusticated ochre reminded me of the crags in the Burri Cretto in Sicily.
In her meticulous graphic renderings of ocean waves, stars, planets, spider webs and other natural objects, she worked lower right to upper left on a bridge to avoid smudging. She never erased! How wonderful it would be if we could all be so precise in our lives. Her early work in the sixties, both Magritte-an and Oldenburg-ean was a surprise to me, but showed a sense of humor that doesn’t necessarily appear in the mature work. She called this body of work “falling out of the picture plane”. A view of the LA freeway from inside a car is just about as close to Joan Didion as one could get in imagery, Tuesday Weld notwithstanding.
In paring her later art back to its essence, Celmins is not intending to be spiritual but rather locate the meaning in physicality of the natural things she studies so carefully according to Garrels. Celmins approaches her subjects the way writers often approach their work. Is it real, or is it my memory of it that is real? Memory imposes an extra layer. In Celmins case, it is all to our benefit.
Be sure to take a look at the videos on the SF MoMA website. Celmins, who now lives in NY, will be at SF MoMA for a talk on January 31.