Interview: Vija Celmins
by Wendy Vogel
Vija Celmins, an artist renowned for her painstakingly rendered paintings and drawings of night skies, deserts and oceans, began her mature career in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. From 1964-66, she focused primarily on representing images of death and catastrophe, such as war planes, smoking guns and fires. These works are the subject of Television and Disaster, her solo exhibition currently on view at the Menil Collection. Just a few hours before the opening, ...might be good spoke to Celmins about this period and her response to seeing these works brought together again. Television and Disaster remains on view at the Menil Collection through February 20, 2011.
...might be good [...mbg]: You often say you don’t ascribe to a particular school or style. How do you respond to your work here in the Menil Collection being more or less juxtaposed against the California Cool artists in Kissed by Angels the group exhibition in the gallery next door?
Vija Celmins [VC]: I went to school in California and I know those artists and their work well, but there’s a lot of sculpture in there and I'm not a sculptor. I’m a painter through and through. Even when I make objects, I’m a painter, and those people were interested in other things. On the other hand, you could also link my work to theirs by saying that nearly everybody of my generation turned away from Abstract Expressionism. Not that I didn’t think that it was the most fantastic painting around, but because I wasn’t in New York and I had always seen it secondhand, I felt that I wasn’t somehow capable of doing it.
I was a talented young painter, but I turned to looking. It was like the belief system broke down there. I didn’t have that incredible belief that the paint itself was the character, and that the painting was really about the paint. Of course, now I would say that it really is only about the paint. Maybe I didn’t want to compose back then. I couldn’t stand those composition exercises in school. I began to turn away from those things one by one: bigness to small, from abstractness to image, from color to no color. I think I was trying to fit it more with a thing that I had in myself.
...mbg: This might segue well into my next question, which is about the subject matter of your work vis-à-vis different kinds of Pop and photorealist painters that were working in the ‘60s. Was it important for you, in retrospect, to address political imagery or other kinds of childhood imagery as a European?
VC: Well, I didn’t think of myself as a European, but when I look back at this painting, it does seem more like European painting. First of all, I didn’t know that much about American culture, whereas the Pop artists had grown up in American culture. I didn’t really participate in the commercial part of the subject matter, and I also didn’t use commercial techniques like Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein did, but obviously almost everyone had turned to subject matter.
I think I was more influenced by people like Malcolm Morley, who was a little bit more of a “painter” and not a commercial artist and didn’t use commercial techniques. And of course, I also looked to Jasper Johns, who was so tactile and fabulous. He was obviously a true painter and a really clever artist. I never thought of myself as a really clever artist, unfortunately or fortunately.
I think my work has always remained sort of somber. I was always attracted to the flatness of the painting, and the fact that if you put an image on it, you have to come to terms with it. I have a whole history of trying to come to terms with that idea after I made this work, especially work like Burning Man (1966), a very illustrative, jazzed-up work. I decided that I couldn’t do this work anymore and I dropped the whole thing. I went back to just describing a very flat surface like the ocean, the ocean also being a very flat surface.
I have come back to painting in different ways since the 1960s, like all my black Night Sky paintings, which are very layered. Some paintings in this show were done from life, i.e. T.V., 1964, and then I started doing these drawings of clippings that I’d been collecting. They no longer show the object, but still they have a single image that I wouldn’t have to compose.
The paintings in this exhibition are very dense and they don’t show any strokes. They’re very concentrated and packed with energy. They often have these disastrous things happening in them which have been subdued. That’s the sort of emotional tone that now I see in retrospect, but back then was intuitive.
...mbg: So you say you allow the image but not the idea to come first in your work.
VC: I think I am very thoughtful and I see mind in my paintings. I’ve often tried to be less mindful but with no real effect. I wanted to let my hands do some of the stuff without my brain interfering all the time with composing and pushing and pulling. I always talk about it like a step backwards. And then I dropped this period, but I think I have some paintings that have this residue of a very unique kind of feeling that seems to touch people.
When you’re working, though, you don’t really think about affect. I didn’t think about money, I didn’t think about showing, I was just going from one inspired thing to another. If someone gave me a gun, I would paint the gun. I’ve never shot a gun, so I got a gun magazine. I looked at the clouds of smoke; I liked the clouds. I looked at Magritte; I liked his clouds. All for a couple of months. When you’re a student you run through art history like it’s on fire.
Some of the work seems to have a children’s quality, like some of the houses, even the paintings of the gun going off and fires. What kid doesn’t like fires? I used to love fires, even when I saw them in the war. For that reason, I’ve always thought of this period as reaching back and taking care of these memories, which were not in southern California, but in Latvia, and sort of connecting with myself. So I could feel like I wasn’t just dreaming up paintings that were not a part of my emotional life, but that were sort of connected with me, knowing that the subject matter comes and goes.
...mbg: You said in an interview with Chuck Close that “the photograph is an alternate subject, another layer that creates distance and distance creates the opportunity to view the work more slowly and explore your relationship with it.”
VC: You know why I like painting? Because it’s against the wall and you can turn away from it. You have to build a relationship to it with your body. You have to go up to those giant paintings where you can roam around and float, like a Pollock. I concentrated my paintings into this stone against the wall. Some of them are more open, but some of them are quite tightly closed off.
...mbg: I am interested in the way that you describe a bodily relationship to the painting. What do you think about our relationship, or lack thereof, in the contemporary era with the object quality of photographs?
VC: My feeling is that photography is more image-related and painting is more about how it’s made. Photography is still manipulating a machine. You still don’t have your touch, and your dog’s hair, and your hair, and the millions of nuances that you can get with dust and oil. I like photographs that I find and sometimes they have a wonderful grayness that is printed that I fall for, but photography is another world.
When I use the image, it’s sort of like a trap. Somebody in the image says, “Come look at me.” And when you go to see you realize that it’s something made, you get to see another life of the made and sometimes you have to look really close because it looks like it’s just appeared and not made. I like the idea that somehow you close off the painting and it’s sort of restrained, but it asks something of you. I hope.
...mbg: I like that. That it’s asking something from you and it’s different than what we experience—
VC: Because it’s made by another human being. It’s not nature, so there’s a totally different human element, and of course there’s the intellectual part of fitting into art history. That being said, I’m in no way symbolic or spiritual. I know art can be good for the spirit, but I’m a very secular artist. Art is so segmented. This is work I did 45 years ago, and I’m happy that it stands up at all in this fabulous museum.
Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.