ARTIST ROOMS Vija Celmins: Found Images

Vija Celmins, ‘Concentric Bearings A’ 1984
Vija Celmins
Concentric Bearings A 1984
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Vija Celmins

“I’m not a very confessional artist, you know. I don’t ever reveal what I’m feeling in my work, or what I think about the President. I use nature. I use found images.” - Vija Celmins [1]

As a young girl in her newly settled home in Indianapolis, Indiana, Celmins began collecting images from comic books and picture playing cards. Highlighting the importance of imagery from this early age the artist later reflected: “I had stacks of comics because I had sort of taught myself how to read, because I couldn’t speak English. I only spoke Latvian, really.” [2]

Celmins began using found photography as her source material in the mid-1960s, during the period when she was also engaged in making sculpture based on everyday functional objects. These sculptures are striking in their resemblance to actual objects and employ the Surrealist method of changing the size and scale.

The found or common object – with its origins in Marcel Duchamp and his readymades from the 1910s – was a popular subject in Pop Art, at its peak during the 1960s. Duchamp’s work saw something of a revival during this period, particularly for artists such as Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol. [3] Celmins’ work from this period is often mentioned in relation to Pop, because of her use of found photographs as source material but Celmins’ work is far removed from the brash consumerism that seemed to typify Pop Art. [4] She looked to the object paintings of Magritte and Giorgio Morandi for inspiration. Her early object paintings and interest in scientific imagery led to her drawings and prints of seas, night skies and deserts, with their extraordinary surfaces and physical presence.

Images of lunar surfaces, galaxies, planets, oceans, falling planes and nuclear experiments allude to a sense of great space and drama. Celmins first worked from photographs and clippings of planets and lunar surfaces during a period when official images first appeared in the media. The late 1960s saw the culmination of the great ‘space race’ between the Soviet Union and the USA with the landmark Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.

Discussion
Read the following quote from Vija Celmins and discuss in relation to her use of found images. “The photograph is an alternate subject, another layer that creates distance. And distance creates an opportunity to view the work more slowly and to explore your relationship to it. I treat the photograph as an object, to scan and re-make in my art.” [5]

Activity
Choose your own readymade using an image of an everyday object. Think about whether the object has any significance for you and if that matters. Think about how you might alter the readymade.

Artist Link
The German artist Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) also painted directly from photographs he found in magazines. While Richter also painted from photographs of skies and war planes, his found source material also included family photographs.

Notes and references
[1]. Betsy Sussler, ‘Interview with Vija Celmins’, The Museum of Modern Art, October 18, 2011, https://www.moma.org/pdfs/docs/learn/archives/transcript_celmins.pdf, p. 29, accessed, 1 April 2014.
[2]. Ibid, p.6.
[3]. Celmins referred to Duchamp in the Concentric Bearings series using a photograph of his optical illusion device Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) (1920) as source material.
[4]. Celmins work was included in the publication ‘Pop Art’ because of her interest in everyday objects. Edited by Lucy Lippard it was first published in 1966.
[5]. William S. Bartman (Ed.), ‘Vija Celmins interviewed by Chuck Close’, New York, 1991, p.12.