Vija Celmins has long been admired for her meticulous renderings of natural imagery, including ocean waves, desert floors, and night skies. Her paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints depict scenes that are too vast or mercurial to be fixed in the mind’s eye. Celmins first became interested in representing the visible world during the early-1960s, when she began to paint the objects in her Los Angeles studio — lamps, heaters, and other overlooked fixtures of everyday life — before turning her attention to photographs found in magazines and history books. By the end of the 1960s, when she first developed her all-over compositions of waves, rocks, and celestial bodies, she had set aside paint in favor of graphite and charcoal. When she began painting again in the 1980s, drawing and printmaking remained central to her art. Regarding her commitment to the material aspects of her process, Celmins has said, “I believe if there is any meaning in art, it resides in the physical presence of a work.”
Vija Celmins (b. 1938) was born in Riga, Latvia, and immigrated to the United States with her family in the late 1940s. She studied painting and printmaking at the John Herron School of Art in Indiana and attended a summer session at Yale University in 1961 before before moving to Los Angeles in 1962 to pursue a master’s degree at UCLA. Celmins remained in Los Angeles until 1981, when she moved to New York, where she currently lives and works.
“Throughout an accomplished career that spans more than fifty years, Celmins has sustained a practice of deep focus and extraordinary skill in a wide range of media. Celmins bases her exquisitely wrought paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints on the world around us—sometimes through direct observation, but more often mediated by photography. Whether her sources are quotidian objects from her first studio in Venice, California, photographs of the Pacific Ocean taken at the local pier, or reproductions from newspapers, magazines, scientific exploration and inquiry, the resulting work possesses a magical verisimilitude.”
In 1992 the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia organized the first retrospective of her work. Since then she has had one-person exhibitions at numerous museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Kunstmuseum Basel, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Menil Collection in Houston. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996 and received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997.