Viya Celmins Painting What Is

Viya Celmins, American born Latvia, 1938

 

from an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020:  To Fix the Image in Memory

 

 

The artist works from focus in real life and also from photographs. 

 

“I am not interested in telling stories,” she said.

 

She wants instead to fix objects in memory.

 

 

 

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Envelope, 1964, oil on canvas, and detail.

  Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

The artist said that she did not think about being an artist. “It just seeped in.”

 

 

 

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The envelope of a letter from the artist’s mother two years after she received it. 1968, collage and graphite on acrylic ground on paper. 

Collection of the artist on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

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Hot Plate, 1964, oil on canvas. 

Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019/2020

 

 

 

When the Soviet Union invaded Latvia towards the end of WW2, the artist, 2 years old, and her family fled to  (Nazi) Germany and were in refugee camps for four years until she was 9 years old. 

Then they were brought to the United States and settled in Indianapolis, IN.

 

 

 

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Gun with Hand #2, 1964, oil on canvas, and detail.

Private collection on loan to Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019/2020

 

 

 

This is her 82nd year.  

 

 

 

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Fan, 1964, oil on canvas, and detail.

  Oakland Museum of California on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

This is a record of her appreciation of the material world.  I can’t imagine that anyone can study an object long enough to record it in this way without loving it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Heater, 1964, oil on canvas, and detail.

Loan by the Whitney Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019/2020

 

 

I have seen a lot of paint thrown about on canvas; and ‘conceptual’ work of obscure concepts ; all kinds of scribbling passing for evolved art.

 

 

I accept that it can take as much  discipline and skill and tenacity to represent a concept as it does to represent something real, solid, materially visible

 

 

but the difference is that often the skill in non-representational work is not obvious.

 

Representation requires the highest standard of skill always.  That is the difference.

 

 

Because we can judge the real. But the representation of a concept, scribbles, abstractions of all kinds:  we need experts for.  With their theories. 

 

Nothing wrong with theories but do they do anything more than play with our brain cells?

 

 

 

 

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Lamp #1, oil on canvas, 1964, and detail.

Collection of the artist on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

Viya Celmins’ work moved me. 

 

The appreciation of the world as it is, for one.  

 

 

The submission of the artist (‘s ego) to her work, for two.  An almost medieval submission. How rare is this?

 

One way you know that the artist’s emotions are involved, if not her ego, is her record of airplanes. 

 

They played a large part in the horror of the first decade of her life.

 

 

 

 

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T.V., 1964, oil on canvas, and detail.

Loan from a private collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

This artist has been like a stream which has flowed quietly, picking up this and then that, turning them over, polishing them up

 

 

so that they are fully visible to us who think we see but most often don’t.

 

 

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Forest Fire, 1965-66, oil on canvas, and detail. 

Courtesy of the artist exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

Viya Celmins has brought her work to us – the general public –  with the difficulty which attends the work of women.  (Her work has been collected for years and is well known to the art community).

 

 

The Guardian UK reported in November 2019 that in that year fewer than 14% of all exhibitions and 11% of all acquisitions in the largest 26 US museums is the work of women.

 

 

 

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Burning Plane, 1965, oil on canvas, and detail.

  Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

And there is a bias against representational work.  At least 80 years old now in the United States.

 

 

 

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What a surprise, then, was this work in one of our most august institutions:

 

 

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Suspended Plane, 1966, oil on canvas.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in 2019/2020

 

 

 

Small and medium-sized paintings, ranged, grays-white-creams, on white walls

 

 

requiring focused attention; some more than a half-century old already.

 

 

 

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German Plane, 1966, oil on canvas. 

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on loan to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

 

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Flying Fortress, 1966, oil on canvas.

MOMA, NY loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

 

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Explosion at Sea, 1966, oil on canvas. 

The Art Institute of Chicago on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019/2020

 

 

As the Vietnam War escalated, the artist recalled her childhood: war, death

 

 

 

 

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Burning Man, 1966, oil on canvas, and detail.

  Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

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Hiroshima, 1968, graphite on acrylic ground on paper. 

Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

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Train, 1965, oil on canvas. 

Promised gift to the Dallas Museum on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019/2020

 

 

 

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Tulip Car #1, oil on canvas, 1966, and detail.

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019/2020

 

 

 

 

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Freeway, 1966, oil on canvas, and detail.

Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

The artist took snapshots from her car as she drove the 405 from Venice Beach to the University of California at Irvine where she began teaching in 1966.

 

 

 

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Rhinoceros, 1965, oil on canvas. 

National Gallery of Art on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

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Truck, 1966, oil on canvas, and detail.  

Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

 

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Pink Pearl Eraser, 1966-67, balsa wood and acrylic paint. 

National Gallery, Washington, DC on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

 

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Pencil, 1968-70, wood, canvas and acrylic paint. 

Glenstone Museum, Potomac, MD on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019/2020

 

 

 

The artist began taking photographs of the Pacific Ocean in 1969

 

 

 

 

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Untitled (Ocean), 1969, graphite on acrylic ground on paper, and detail.

Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

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Untitled (Big Sea #1), 1969, graphite on acrylic ground on paper, and detail.

Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

 

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Untitled (Ocean with Cross #2), graphite on acrylic ground on paper, 1972.  Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

The cross refers to a subtle cross which can be seen in the composition which the artist hoped would undercut the illusionistic quality of this painting.

 

 

 

 

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Desert Surface #1, 1991, oil on wood panel. 

Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019/2020 

The surface of a piece of wood found in Death Valley, CA

 

 

 

In the last 25 years Viya Celmins has visited the stars.

 

 

 

 

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Untitled (Night Sky #10), 1994-1995, charcoal on paper.

Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

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Star Field III, graphite on acrylic ground paper, 1983, and detail. 

MOMA, NY on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

 

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Reverse Night Sky #4, 2015-2017, oil on canvas.

Glenstone Museum, Potomac, MD on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

An inversion of the night sky.

 

 

 

 

And interested herself in the work of spiders also: as meticulous and exquisite a record of living as her own

 

 

 

 

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Untitled (Web #5), 1999, charcoal on paper, and detail.

  Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2091/2020

 

 

 

 

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Untitled (Web #1), 1999, charcoal on paper, and detail.

  National Galleries of Scotland on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

And book covers whose tactile pleasure she evokes;  a vase likewise with its  craquelure:

 

 

 

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Vase, oil on canvas, 2017-2018.  On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019/2020

 

 

 

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Japanese Book, 2007-2010, oil on canvas. 

Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019/2020

 

 

 

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Darwin, 2008-2010, oil on canvas (with light bleaching towards the base of the image).

Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

 

The Origin of Species? 

Made me smile.

A reminder of how artificial many of our social hierarchies are, how unnatural, in our man-made worlds compared to those of the natural world

 

that it has taken into the artist’s 80’s for us, the hoi polloi, to see this extraordinary work and relish her images fixed now in our memories also.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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