When I was halfway through the Vija Celmins retrospective at the SFMOMA, a group of high school students breezed in and approached a vitrine displaying pairs of real rocks and Celmins’s own reproductions (cast bronze and painted). “Oh,” one student said, unimpressed, “rocks.” It was in that snarky Emperor-Wears-No-Clothes sort of way teenagers use when they think they’ve outsmarted modern art (actually, adults have that too, just with more umbrage). As with all of Celmins’s work, you have to look really hard — and read the museum plaque — to understand you’re looking at the work of a master copier of the universe writ large and small.
Early in the Vija Celmins retrospective, we see her large, adeptly painted canvases depicting objects: a fan, a space heater, a desk lamp that resembles a pair of eyes. There are also three sculptures: rubber erasers, a pencil, a comb — all oversized as if they’re props from The Incredible Shrinking Woman. While they fit with the new objectivism and the nouveaux realism that followed ab-ex and resulted in the work of Johns and Oldenberg (amongst others), there’s something else going on, something personal. Celmins has rendered monumental the small, mundane elements of the meager artist’s studio. And there’s a certain irony one realizes about halfway through the show, when, twenty years later, she’s doing the exact opposite: Taking the grandness of the sky and waves and reducing it through her small, painstakingly executed graphite renderings drawn from photographs.
Celmins is a bad-ass. She can draw circles around anyone. But Celmins draws in order to confuse us, to confuse the drawn image with the thing it represents. On view are several trompe l’œil pencil drawings showing meticulously rendered photos of objects tacked or pinned to a board. But everything — the rips, the folds, the shadows, the pins themselves — are drawn by Celmins’s own hand. Much of this early work draws on images of war and destruction: an atomic blast over the Bikini Atol, a Lugar pistol. She also painted war planes in dense grays that reduce their power and majesty, turning them into bloated, still things. A painting of a television set showing a WWII bomber going down in flames links the earlier object paintings to this war period. There are also two sculptures of houses that variously recall Rene Magritte and Meret Oppenheim. They’re beautiful and would almost be precious were it not for her unsettling treatments, including more war paintings.
Her drawing on themes of war make sense both in terms of the US war in Vietnam and her own childhood: She and her family survived both the Soviet occupation in Latvia and the Nazi regime in Germany. War was very personal.
The remaining 60% of the drawings and paintings focus largely on waves, the starry sky, and the desert floor. And the show can be fatiguing. One’s eyes are drawn from a dark and dense starscape to a bright desert floor. But also, let’s be honest, the images are repetitive. Whenever I was tempted to think, “just another wave, I’ll skip it,” I reminded myself of the sheer effort it took her to do these pieces. When she draws a dark sky on a white piece of paper she’s essentially rendering the void, drawing out the stars. I owed it to her to look at each one and see what differentiated it from the last. But, yes, your eyes may hurt.
Later in her career she worked with slates and chalk boards. She would acquire the kind of slate that a turn-of-the-century school child would use for copying exercises and do her own copying exercise: namely reproducing the slate down to the tiniest detail. Every crack, nail, scratch, and ghostly chalky palimpsest is reproduced. It’s incredible. You’ll find yourself scrutinizing each pairing, looking for the fake.
One of the biggest tropes in art writing is “so-and-so makes us question the relationship between the object and the thing that represents it.” It’s almost cringe-worthy in its repetition on wall plaques, and I don’t want to repeat it here. Anyway, I’m not sure that’s what she was doing. Celmins was focused on execution, on duplicating every single artifact of the photographic source. While she certainly played games with the viewer, I don’t think she was grandly conceptual. As much as she was playing with the universal, her work always came from the personal.