Vija Celmins (pronounced VEE-ja SELL-mins) was born in 1938 in Riga, capital of Latvia. Fleeing the Soviet invasion of 1944, her family immigrated to the United States in 1948. She earned an undergraduate art degree in Indiana and an M.F.A from UCLA in 1965.
Within a decade, she was becoming known for precise, painstakingly wrought illusions of reality: expanses of ocean waves, star-studded night skies, clouds or the moon’s surface, rendered in graphite, charcoal or muted tones of oil paint.
[In the period 1963-1968]… Ms. Celmins first committed to “looking at simple objects and painting them straight.” She depicts her studio companions — an electric heater, its red-hot coil at full blast; a two-headed lamp; and an electric fan — in varieties of gray. “I’m from a gray land, Latvia,” she has said. They also testify to her attraction to the lush backgrounds of Velázquez.
In a smaller gallery of tiny graphite drawings there is a depiction of a letter addressed to the artist in her mother’s cursive handwriting. Ms. Celmins made the envelope’s five stamps separately; each is a tiny drawing with crenelated edges, three offer aerial views of the Pearl Harbor attack.
(Roberta Smith, “Deep Looking, With Vija Celmins,” NYTimes, 9-26-19)
(c) 2020 JMN
So many people do photo-realism of one stripe or another, and yet her pieces are recognizable. She was also making those paintings and drawings when it was completely unfashionable, nevertheless somehow she made a name or herself doing it. Part of it is her choice of subject matter, and then perhaps her treatment of the imagery, which despite being a replica retains a certain flavor. I think it must be something to do with knowing that she ingested every little detail, and the paintings visibly bear that history.
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