Lot 168
  • 168

Vija Celmins

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Vija Celmins
  • Long Ocean
  • signed and dated 1973 on the reverse
  • acrylic and graphite on paper
  • 30 by 44 in. 76.2 by 111.8 cm.


Fred Hoffman, Los Angeles
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1986

Catalogue Note

"I don't imagine the ocean and try to re-create a memory of it when I'm doing the art. I explore a surface through drawing it. The image gets controlled, compressed, and transformed." Vija Celmins

For half a century, Vija Celmins has created works of an outstanding quality and consistency. The zealousness with which she approaches each work and carries off her profound exploration of a handful of visual motifs has brought her the adoration and adulation of curators and collectors alike. The stars, the desert and, most poignantly, the ocean are the themes that have held her interest throughout the decades. The series of Long Ocean drawings that the present lot is a part of was created in the same year as Celmins’ first one-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1973. Long Ocean is one of Vija Celmins’ largest works on paper. The impressive size and importance of the series in general has led to sister drawings being placed in esteemed collections such as The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  In this piece a horizontal bar of water floats in the lower portion of a larger, blank paper field that functions as a compositional element and implies sky, horizon, and foreground. In the Long Ocean series of drawings, the artist rendered a perspective effect, darkening the lower part of the drawing by gradually thickening the graphite layer and even including a horizon line and offers a radical investigation of the materiality of the graphite itself. Each extremely detailed drawing is rendered in graphite on a sheet of paper covered in light white acrylic. This method of preparation, which is similar to a technique employed in Europe since the Middle Ages, is used by Celmins to reinforce the integrity of graphite by avoiding direct contact between pencil and paper. Celmins’ Long Ocean evokes primal forms of escape: the powerful work instills a blanket of calmness, encouraging a liberating relinquishment in the face of such absolute wonder.

Her use of photography as the source of inspiration established Celmins as an early pioneer of Photo-Realism and put her work in dialogue with another great artist to emerge in the sixties: Gerhard Richter. The ocean drawings marked an essential shift in Celmins’ work away from her use of clippings and found photographic sources toward a greater simplicity and uniformity of subject matter. She would walk her dog along Venice Beach. There was a long pier extending out into the ocean from the beach where she could feel surrounded by water on all sides. The point of view that Long Ocean now assumes is suggestive of a traveler brought to a standstill, shaken loose from their journey by the absorbing beauty of the boundless horizon. In Celmins, looking itself becomes intransitive, loosened with a looming abstraction. The long gaze towards the meeting of sky and ocean leads to some ultimate encounter at the farthest end of representation. This experience, unique to the work of Celmins, is of the utmost tranquility in the face of such immensity of scale. 

That Celmins is able to create a vastness and feeling of the infinite that rivals the greatest works by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman despite the relatively small work is a testament to her technique and ambition. In these Ocean Drawings Celmins channels the precise naturalism of nineteenth-century landscape painting that permeates the work of artists from Hudson River School and the more transcendental twentieth-century approach of Abstract Expressionism of Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Yet, Celmins brings to this beautiful approach a contemporaneous element that relates to her friendship with light and space artists such as Doug Wheeler and Robert Irwin. Celmins’ intense relationship with nature’s infinite and magnificent expanse in Long Ocean reflects an interest in states of heightened perception, acute observation of nature, and an awareness of one’s relationship to the physical environment. Celmins has truly and quintessentially renewed the age-old tradition of the landscape genre.

The continuous and infinite pleasure one has when looking at her work is in part to the wondrous beauty Celmins is able to bring to life with the simplest materials of graphite, acrylic, and paper. The flitting between infinitesimal expanse and microscopic marks on the surface that plays so wonderfully with the tension between representation and abstraction is a delight that never ceases in engaging our eyes and mind. Celmins’ choice of the ocean as subject matter is not based on the idea of representing a specific place or the meaning of such a place. Celmins has chosen the most abstract type of recognizable space: the endless expanse of the horizon along the vast ocean. The play between abstraction and representation is an essential game that Vija Celmins plays with the viewer and relates her work strongly to the modernist investigations of Cézanne’s work, “I mean, the thing that I think I got from Cézanne and looking at Cézanne—which took me years—is sort of a really gutsy relationship between the image and the plain flat object. He has such a wonderful way of pointing that out to you in every stroke. And also the fact—which I think was a great part of the twentieth century—that this is an invented thing, you know? That it’s not, like, a copy of nature or a copy of a photograph. It’s an invented thing that you have in front of you, you know? So, I think I kind of have that in me somewhere, this relationship.” (Vija Celmins, Art21, Vija Celmins: Building Surfaces, 2003, video).

Initially one is seduced by the perfect rendering of the ocean by the delicate hand of Celmins. Yet, one can equally approach this as an abstract image. The lack of detail but for the elegant and clearly defined lines of graphite upon the stark white acrylic creates a duality. The image of Long Ocean can be both highly detailed and, at the same time, abstract. Just as Cézanne left his brushstrokes clear for the viewer to see all the while creating paintings of shocking realism, Celmins creates works of subtly emphatic realism and abstraction.

Within this realism is a sense of timelessness. The horizon line where the vast ocean and the boundless sky meet has enchanted every generation of mankind with its beauty and ability to sustain our endless gaze, remaining the same since humankind first came into existence. Vija Celmins taps into this power and renders such majesty with a technique honed through hours of painstaking practice and rehearsal that truly puts her in the company of art history’s greatest draftsmen. Her choice of subject matter has no age. One could imagine Albrecht Durer, Leonardo Da Vinci, Caspar David Friedrich, and J. M. W. Turner spending their hours laboriously bringing the ocean to life through their masterful technique. Vija Celmins’ work has reached unparalleled constancy; her art could have been made centuries ago and have been recognizable and understood just as it will be when viewed centuries into the future. Channeling the infinitesimal nature of the horizon, Celmins in Long Ocean has given us a work of art with an ever-lasting quality. There is no more exquisite experience than taking the time to bathe in the glorious technique of Vija Celmins’ Long Ocean. Forcing us to exercise our eyes as a muscle, Celmins’ work allows us to contemplate eternity.