American painter, sculptor, object-maker and draughtswoman, of Latvian birth. In 1944 her family fled to eastern Germany, eventually settling near Esslingen am Neckar (Baden-Württemberg) in the west. In 1948 they moved to the USA, staying briefly in New York before resettling in Indianapolis. Celmins studied painting at the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis (1955–62) and regularly visited New York to see the work of the Abstract Expressionists. After attending the summer session at Yale University, New Haven, where she met a strong community of students and artists, she decided to become a painter (1961). She then attended the University of California, Los Angeles (1962–5). From 1966 Celmins took photographs as subjects for paintings. In painted and drawn works since 1968 she drew upon photographs from books, magazines and those taken by herself, including views of the sea, desert and constellations. In such works as Moon Surface (Luna 9) No. 1 (1969; New York, MOMA) she carefully built up and layered marks to create a distance between photograph and painting, also calling attention to the paper surface. Her persistent attention to the psychological implications of the artistic process in relation to the formulation of images made the images objects for contemplation. One of her most visually and conceptually challenging works is To Fix the Image in Memory 9 (1977–82), a series of 11 stones, both real and cast-bronze, painted with acrylic.
Vija Celmins: A Survey Exhibition (exh. cat., intro. S. C. Larsen; Newport Beach, CA, Harbor A. Mus.; Chicago, IL, A. Club; Yonkers, NY, Hudson River Mus.; Washington, DC, Corcoran Gal. A.; 1980)
W. W. Bartman, ed.: Vija Celmins (Interviewed by Chuck Close) (New York, 1992)