The three works in the Gordon Collection were all made between the years 1965 to 1967 and address the earliest concerns and ideas of Vija Celmins’ art. The years include her graduation from UCLA, her first solo exhibition and her first real job.
Vija Celmins has long been known as a precocious and gifted artist. Born in Riga, Latvia in 1938, at the beginning of World War II, Celmins’ childhood memories of war are vivid and played an integral role in her first mature works of art. First invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940, Latvia was occupied most of Celmins’ early life. She left the Nazi-occupied country with her family in 1944, fleeing to Eastern Germany and then to the United States, settling in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1948. Celmins remained in Indianapolis through high school and college, graduating from the John Herron Art Institute in 1961.
Having now lived a stable (happily mundane compared to early childhood) life to that point Celmins set out strongly onward, seeking to explore conversations about art and ideas with artists. Widening her circle of knowledge and contemporary art discussions, Celmins attended the Yale Summer Session in 1961 where she met Brice Marden, David Novros and Chuck Close, among others. It was an experience that changed her life and led directly to her decision to pursue a life as an artist. Like Marden and Novros, who were into compositional abstraction, Celmins' work came from the abstract vocabulary still popular in the early 1960s. The following summer, she traveled Europe with a boyfriend looking at art in museums and that fall she moved to Los Angeles, where she would set the first stage of her career and discover the style that generated the three seminal works here.
Though Celmins does not cite the influence of the show, one of the exhibitions that was on view in the Los Angeles area in the fall of 1962 was Walter Hopps’ New Painting of Common Objects, the first museum exhibition of Pop Art. A few months earlier, Andy Warhol, who was in that show, had his first solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery. Ideas were obviously in the air. “I was looking at magazines and so I knew Warhol and I knew that everybody had started painting objects,” she said. (Vija Celmins in conversation with the author, April 23, 2010)
In 1963, Celmins began studying painting in the MFA program at UCLA and soon after moved into her first studio, a bright storefront in Venice. Shortly after she departed from abstraction and started painting objects, firstly those “common” things that were around her studio, including a fan, a heater and a hot plate. From those common objects she then moved into objects of violence, including guns, which she treated like props in the studio with friends firing them and or just holding them. In 1964, she made three paintings of guns and in 1965 she created Burning Plane (lot 6), the first of five paintings of planes, inspired by magazine clippings and her own personal experience. In their grisaille palette they have a kinship with the photorealism of Gerhard Richter’s war paintings from the same time and the political Pop of Warhol, as in Race Riot (1964), made in response to the violence done to those marching for Civil Rights.
The chosen subject matter, even more so than the objects of the studio allowed Celmins to tap into a rich vein of personal history. “I can’t even say I looked for them (the pictures of war) on purpose. It was a part of me. The whole set of grays that I love… I’m from a gray land, Latvia. I’m not from California. I’m from a place where there was soot and trains and bombs. There was an incredible anxiety from that time that I didn’t really understand at all.” Burning Plane, like Explosion at Sea (1966: Art Institute of Chicago) captures a moment of war and terror. The painting was inspired by a magazine image of the scene and an accompanying article describing the eleven men who died in the bomber. The other three paintings of planes have the potential of violence but at a remove, as they are all aloft. (Flying Fortress, 1966: MOMA; Suspended Plane, 1966: SFMOMA; German Plane, 1966: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth). The rich grisaille color recalls the black and white photography documenting the news in magazines and newspapers, and even the television screen of the early 1960s. For Celmins, like Richter, both consummate painters, photography played an important role in her work of the 1960s, both mediated images and more objective pictures she took herself. While World War II was a memory from childhood, the Vietnam War raging on television weighed heavily on Celmins’ mind in the present. War on television is exactly what she had painted a year earlier in T.V. Displayed in her 1965 graduate thesis exhibition, Burning Plane shows the young artist on the cusp of success. Joni Gordon acquired the work from that show.
As much as Celmins was a stranger in sunny Los Angeles, Clouds No. 2 (lot 7) attests to her intense scrutiny of the natural environment around her. Clouds No. 2 can be seen as a precursor to her long preoccupation later with the night skies and the oceans, subjects that would become her signature works of her long career. Celmins commuted from Venice to the University of California, Irvine, where she taught alongside Light and Space artist Robert Irwin whose influence she has cited. She often took snapshots from her vantage point in the car. She was close to James Turrell and Doug Wheeler when she began to focus on the surface of the sky and earth. Ideas around light and space were in the air, especially in California where the airline industry was taking off at the time.
In 1966, Celmins began a series of paintings and sculptures of toys, childhood games, school pencils and the big Pink Pearl erasers such as the one here (lot 8). Though she has discussed looking toward these types of objects as a way of tapping into her memory of childhood, her interest in common objects was obviously pronounced. She found the sculptures to be a form of relief from working on the paintings, which were so detailed, direct and even tedious. Celmins was interested in “not using Pop’s commercial techniques, but a more tender touch.” (Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, eds., Vija Celmins, London, 2004, p. 15) Celmins made three erasers and one large pencil between 1966 and 1967. The fine details of each of these tools for drawing are remarkable and evidence of the exactitude that characterizes Celmins’ entire body of work from the early 1960s to the present. A complete vision of the foundation of Vija Celmins work is here in these three pivotal works of art.
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