ARTIST ROOMS Vija Celmins: The Natural World

Vija Celmins, ‘Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992’ 1992
Vija Celmins
Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992 1992
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Vija Celmins

“The images are not from observations of nature, but are ‘found images’ from old magazines, books and photos. Thus they are already flattened and a step removed from nature. My work lies between intimacy and distance.” - Vija Celmins [1]

Celmins’ body of work is part of an engagement with the natural world evident throughout the history of art. Giotto’s The Lamentation circa 1305 from the Arena Chapel in Prado with its deep blue skies is a painting which made a strong impression on Celmins as she traveled around Europe as a student. [2] In Celmins’ work however, the subject matter is secondary – her primary interest is that of making. She once said: “I could never do portraits, or things that are too psychologically alive in the real world.” [3]

Celmins takes details from images of nature’s surfaces and skies, but removes horizons or any central point of reference. She explores the representation of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. Speaking of her earliest works based on photographs of the ocean she has said: “…when I started doing the oceans, I made a few decisions. One decision was that I was going to go back to more of an abstract kind of work where I mapped out the image on the surface of my painting uniting the two closely.” [4]

Images of the ocean first appeared in Celmins’ work in 1968, with a series of graphite pencil on paper drawings that experimented with variations in the density and tone of graphite. Speaking of its reappearance across many works and various decades, Celmins noted: “The ocean image is one that is part of me and that I try to do every now and then with a new sensibility or process.” [5] In Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992 the ocean image is based on one of a group of photographs of the Pacific Ocean, taken by the artist near her studio in California in the late 1960s.

In the extensive group of prints by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS there are two other works that utilise the ocean motif: Drypoint – Ocean Surface 1983 and Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000. Its likely that the same source photographs from the 1960s, were used as the starting point for each of these printed images. Celmins took the photographs from the end of the pier where the vast ocean filled the camera’s viewfinder.

Discussion
Read the following quote from Celmins and discuss its relation to her source material and the finished artwork: “I use an image that has a lot of associations with it, which I put in this very cold, scientific kind of no style manner that I like in my work… you know, just the facts as complicated as they are.” [6]

Activity
Collect images from magazines and newspapers to create a collage of images. Think about how you might place the images together, what unifies the images and how you might crop them.

Artist Link
British artist Richard Long (b. 1945) explores the body in relation to the natural environment, creating artworks inspired by and documenting his solitary walks.

Notes and references 
[1]. Vija Celmins, ‘Vija Celmins ARTIST ROOMS Tate Britain Display’, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/display/vija-celmins, accessed 1 April 2014.
[2]. Celmins would also encounter the work of Diego Velázquez on her travels. His sombre palette and would likewise become one her early influences.
[3]. 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. 60, accessed, 1 April 2014.
[4]. Ibid. p.22.
[5]. Samantha Rippner, ‘The Prints of Vija Celmins’, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002, p.30.
[6]. Susan Sollins, ‘Art: 21: art in the twenty-first century, Vol. 2’, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2003, p.170. Quote revised by the artist Wednesday 11 June 2014, New York.