Seeing Vija Celmins Up Close

Some work just demands to be viewed up close — especially the work of Vija Celmins. I was able to see a retrospective of her work at The Met Breuer in New York City recently. Numerous guards looked nervous as I surveyed her drawings and prints closely. 

Vija Celmins. Untitled (Cassiopeia), 1973, Graphite on acrylic ground on paper.
NOTE: Teal dots were caused by light reflecting on the glass.

You might be familiar with Celmin’s detailed renderings of waves, such as her Drypoint – Ocean Surface, 1983.  In addition to noting her flawless attention to minute details, my mind alternates between being lost in the image itself, and admiring the lush surface she has created. While the Met Breuer exhibit had only a few examples of her printmaking, her graphite and charcoal drawings and oil paintings were equally fascinating. 

Vija Celmins. Untitled (Web #1), Charcoal on Paper, 1999.
NOTE: Teal dots were caused by light reflecting on the glass.

Celmins creates her surfaces using both additive and subtractive techniques. Imagine the patience, dexterity and arm strength it took to bring her spider web to life by erasing from paper fully-charged with charcoal. The tiny lines are studded with larger marks suggesting water or plant fuzz. Step back, and this incredible surface switches to an image of tranquility and amazing natural geometry. 

Vija Celmins. Vase. Oil on canvas, 2017-18.

Vase was fascinating to me because of my personal obsession with grouping patterns in nature. Why does glazed pottery crackle in the same way as some leaves or a rhino’s skin? I couldn’t get as close to this painting because it was not protected by glass, so Celmin’s methods here remain a mystery to me. You can see an Art21 short film of Vija Celmin’s painting techniques here.

I was delighted to find an audio version of a recent New Yorker article about the artist and her NYC exhibition.  Narrated by George Guidall (of The Cat Who mystery fame,) we are guided through her bodies of work and periods of life, meeting Raymond, the aggressively friendly cat along the way.  I’m hooked. 

Do yourself a favor this weekend. Turn off your media, and go get up-close with some art. 

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