Vija Celmins was born in Riga, Latvia in 1938. Her family fled to the Stuttgart region in the west of Germany in 1944 before eventually leaving Germany for the USA in 1948. After a short time in New York they settled in Indianapolis, Indiana. Celmins studied painting at the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis between 1955 and 1962. During this period she regularly visited New York to see the work of the Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning.
In 1961 she received a Fellowship to Yale University Summer Session where she met a strong community of students and artists including Chuck Close and Brice Marden. She then attended UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) where she explored a variety of styles. After graduating from UCLA she found inspiration in the everyday objects in her studio – including a hot plate, a desk lamp, a fan, and a heater – painting them with minimal colour, using tonal gradations of grey.
In 1966 Celmins had her first solo exhibition at the David Stuart Galleries, Los Angeles. The exhibition included her first paintings based on photographs. The photographs, found in books and magazines, included a number of violent images such as warplanes, burning houses, guns and riots. These works are often associated with her childhood in Latvia and Germany during the Second World War  and were produced during the height of the Vietnam War . In the mid-1960s and early 1970s Celmins also made a number of sculptures of everyday objects such as Pencil 1968–70 and Comb 1969–70.
In 1968 Celmins dropped painting for drawing and began working from pictures of the ocean, a motif she would return to throughout her career. At around the same time she began to use photographs of deserts and skies as her subject matter. In 1973 she had an exhibition of her ocean drawings at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York and the following year began to incorporate the diptych format into her work. In drawings such as Untitled (Desert-Galaxy) 1974 she brought together the desert landscape and the night sky. These drawings associated two images of nature on different scales and taken from different points of view.
Over a five year period, from 1977 until 1982, Celmins worked on a series of sculpture entitled To Fix the Image in Memory. These sculptures combine found stones and bronze casts of them, which have been painted in acrylic to appear identical to the original, prompting the viewer to consider the nature of reality.
In 1979 Celmins had her first retrospective exhibition ‘Vija Celmins: A Survey Exhibition’, originating at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, which later travelled to Chicago, New York and Washington. In 1980 Celmins first collaborated with Gemini G.E.L.– an artists printmaking and sculpture workshop in Los Angeles – where she later did a series of intaglio prints including Constellation Uccello, Concentric Bearings and Alliance. That same year she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1981 she relocated to New York, where she continues to live and work.
In the early 1990s Celmins began to incorporate the spider’s web into her work and in 1992 she had a major retrospective organised by Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which travelled to Los Angeles, New York and Seattle. Celmins has continued her serial exploration of natural forms to the present day through a variety of media including oil paint, charcoal, pencil drawing, printmaking, and sculpture.
Celmins’ other major solo exhibitions include ‘Vija Celmins’ at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris (1995); ‘The Prints of Vija Celmins’ at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2002); ‘Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster’, (1964–68), at the Menil Collection, Houston (2010); ‘Desert, Sea, and Stars’ at Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2011) and ‘Vija Celmins; Double Reality’ at The Latvian National Art Museum, Riga, (2014).
Notes and references
. See Jonas Storvse, ‘Going from One Place to Another’ in Vija Celmins: Dessins = Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2006, p.20. Celmins is quoted as saying: “I began dealing with some images out of my childhood.”
. Celmins herself would participate in one of the earliest mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the ‘Artists Tower of Protest’ erected in Los Angeles in 1966.