I spent a few days in Los Angeles last week to catch up on shows there. My favorite: the restrospective of drawings by Vija Celmins at the Hammer Museum. You see her work everywhere, I’m always running into one or two, but this was the first show to pull it together for me and lead me all the way into her complicated intentions, a trip worth making.
Celmins, who has lived in New York since 1981, was born in Latvia in 1938. She’s had one of those quintessentially 20th century lives, passing through both the disintegration of Europe and the brief postwar idyll in the U.S. That’s another way of saying that during World War II she escaped with her family from both the Germans and the Russians to start a new life in Indianapolis. From there she eventually made her way to art school at UCLA.
It was the early 1960s, the moment when Abstract Expressionism was sputtering to a messy conclusion. With Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg as the pioneers, and Giorgio Morandi as a forerunner, artists looking for a way out of all that inner turmoil,— Warhol and the other Pop artists, serene realists like William Bailey, unclassifiable hipsters like Ed Ruscha — were making pictures of ordinary things from the workaday world, imagined as straightforwardly as possible.
This was how Celmins, too, found her way out of the impasse of AbEx, making intensely observed grisaille paintings of household objects like a utility lamp or a hotplate, seen against bare backgrounds and removed from all notions of purpose or social context. What she cared about were things in their thingness. It’s a miracle she didn’t end up as a Minimalist sculptor.
Before long she was also making more loaded images like War World II bomber planes, pictures that referred obliquely to her tumultuous childhood and the Vietnam War. Incredibly even those feel neutralized, seen from a distance. (It matters here that she almost always worked from photographs.) Even when the image was literally loaded — she made quite a few involving guns — Celmins pulled back to a cool position. In one series she showed a gun being fired by a person whom we see only as a disembodied arm entering the picture from one side — violence without psychology. She made another of a handgun twice-removed from reality, a Peto-ish drawing of a news photo of a pistol, a picture of a picture.
In the late ’60s Celmins made the crucial move into the kind of imagery that continues to obsess her. “All over” images of desert floors, outer space or the ocean surface, their apparent uniformity is built from a superabundance of subdued visual incidents. At that time she also moved temporarily out of painting and into pencil drawing. Its with these resolute, tough minded pictures that she’s made her richest discoveries. What did she learn? That the “all over” field of AbEx could be found in nature. That the all black paintings of Ad Reinhardt could be repurposed as a system of black, grey and white gradations that describe actual scenes. That flat space — the desert floor — could be made infinite. That deep space — the cosmos — could be flat. And that the ocean, that timeworn site of the sublime, could be, you might say, desublimated.
After all those World War II bombers, history has been expelled from these pictures, unless you think in geological or cosmic time. What you see when you look into them is a granular surface of meticulously applied graphite marks that fluctuate in your understanding between abstract marks and specific representations. They anchor your eye to the thick applications of graphite, but anchor it where? They dislocate as quickly as they locate. They’re rigorous in what they exclude, and exciting in how they summon the power of exclusion, how they mobilize their reduced means to open the way to new perceptual and psychological vistas. You might say that what they show is that paradox Wallace Stevens once pointed us towards — “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”