ARTIST ROOMS Vija Celmins: Memory

Vija Celmins - House #2 (1965)

Vija Celmins House #2 1965

© Vija Celmins 

“There was a little period where I think, in some strange, intuitive way, I sort of dealt with the memories of war.” - Vija Celmins [1]

Celmins began collecting photographs and buying books containing imagery of the Second World War in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. Some of these images of warplanes were subjects for paintings such as German Plane 1966. Although Celmins’ work is generally not autobiographical she has conceded that many of these works are related to her early childhood memories in Latvia of the Second World War. Reflecting on these childhood memories she revealed: “…it was a good time of great stress, mostly because there was so much noise and chaos. And my biggest fear was being left somewhere and not finding my parents.” [2]

During the late 1960s Celmins also made paintings from photographs of smoking guns, automobile crashes and explosions. Writing in the catalogue for her retrospective at Institute of Contemporary Arts, Philadelphia Dave Hickey suggested that Celmins’ shift from imagery of war and violence to the ocean, desert and sky, paralleled a shift in her “personal life from the status of a refugee to a nomad – a nomad who could find her bearings from the infinitesimal reference points that nature offers.” [3]

House #2 1965 is among Celmins’ earliest sculptural work and relates to her wartime childhood experiences. Here Celmins painted fires and plane crashes on the outside of the dollshouse. The sculpture is given additional pertinence by the knowledge that Celmins’ father was a builder of houses and the political backdrop in the 1960s included escalating protests against the Vietnam War. Discussing her early sculptural works and making specific reference to House #2 (one of her favourite pieces from the time) Celmins has said: “I have to admit that there is a psychological component to the work.” [4]

The warplane is also present in the Concentric Bearings series 1984. These prints are an important series, which Celmins produced with the Gemini G.E.L. print workshop in Los Angeles. In Concentric Bearings B 1984 an image of a falling plane being shot at is placed next to Celmins’ image of stars shooting in the night sky.

Discussion
Think about images, sounds and smells which remind you of your childhood. Discuss them in a group and identify common memories and senses that inform your memory.

Activity
Gather historical information, such as photographs, drawings, letters etc from your family archive and use it as the basis of a collaborative piece exploring an aspect of history. This may be connected to personal histories or the social, cultural and political history of your community. Consider the possibilities of creating new, collaborative stories that can be expressed not only through art but also through music, performance, dance or drama. 

Artist Link
The American artist Robert Therrien (b.1947) references childhood memories. He transforms elements from everyday life into works of art that evoke classical archetypes.

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. 4, accessed, 1 April 2014.
[2]. Ibid. p.2.
[3]. Jonas Storsve and others, Vija Celmins: Dessins = Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2006, pp.23-4.
[4]. William S. Bartman (Ed.), Vija Celmins interviewed by Chuck Close, New York, 1991, p.20.