Artist to Know: Vija Celmins

Liz Catalano
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Artist’s Hyperrealistic Drypoint Offered by Los Angeles Modern Auctions

For Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins, the goal of art was never self-expression but rather the textures and physical qualities that can draw the viewer’s eye. “I try to use an image because it attracts you to the painting… but the painting is not a window. The painting has its own reality,” Celmins told the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2018. “Sometimes… the only part that I think is of any value is the making itself.”

Celmins creates photorealistic drawings and paintings that explore the minutiae of both natural and fabricated surfaces. Her style began developing in the 1960s, and Celmins has since enjoyed over 40 solo exhibitions. One of her works, a drypoint on Arches Satine paper, will be available in Los Angeles Modern Auctions’ upcoming timed sale. Bidding opens online on July 30th, 2020, and closes on August 9th. Get to know Vija Celmins before the auction starts.

Vija Celmins. Image from The New York Times.
Vija Celmins. Image from The New York Times.

At a young age, Celmins’ family was forced to flee their home in Riga after the Soviet occupation of Latvia. They sought refuge in Nazi Germany during World War II— surviving the regime’s anti-immigrant sentiments— before settling in the United States in the late 1940s. Celmins taught herself English from comic books and picture playing cards, merging her interest in images with her adopted culture. She would go on to attend art school and earn her MFA from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1965.

Though Celmins was active when the Pop Art movement was accelerating, her work took a sharp turn from the consumerist and advertisement-infused images of the time. Instead, she began painting the everyday objects in her studio, from her lamps to her television. Celmins quickly ran out of items to paint, prompting a turn to magazine photos and images from history books. This led the artist to her signature subjects: the ocean, the night sky, and an array of porous rocks.

“I guess my work sometimes confuses people, because I really have nothing to say about the ocean, or the sky, or the moon,” she clarified in an interview with The New York Times. “It’s more about the feeling of the magic of making things I could never have mine: my airplane, my ocean, my sky.”

Vija Celmins, Ocean Surface, 1983. Image from Los Angeles Modern Auctions.
Vija Celmins, Ocean Surface, 1983. Image from Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

Celmins typically executes her detailed texture studies in graphite pencil, an extended departure from the painting styles she learned in school. She has spent a career switching between drawing, painting, and sculpture, yet her pencil works remain her most popular. An untitled 1969 ocean drawing by Celmins sold for USD 2,890,000 at Phillips in 2016. Reaching past its high estimate of $2,500,000, this piece set an auction record for a drawing by a woman artist.

Similar to that work is Ocean Surface, a 1983 drawing by Celmins that will be available in Los Angeles Modern Auctions’ upcoming Modern Art & Design Auction. Numbered 26 of 75, this limited-edition piece was published and printed by Gemini G.E.L. and is signed by the artist below the image. The monochrome drypoint drawing, showing a tight view of rippling ocean waves, measures less than 70 square inches. Its presale estimate is $10,000 to $15,000.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Night Sky #7), 1995. Image from Christie’s.
Vija Celmins, Untitled (Night Sky #7), 1995. Image from Christie’s.

Several of Celmins’ works were recently auctioned at rising prices. A charcoal on paper depiction of the night sky reached $3,015,000 at a Christie’s auction in late 2019. Meanwhile, an oil paint version of the same subject sold for $6,585,450 at Sotheby’s in June of 2020. These prices represent the higher end of Celmins’ auction results, however, especially given the number of works she has completed in her 50-year career. Bonhams sold an untitled ocean woodcut on paper for $21,325 in May of 2020, as well as a 2009 spiderweb screenprint in September of 2019. The latter piece achieved $3,570 against an estimate of $3,000 – $4,000.

Celmins’ newfound popularity is not lost on her, particularly as many artists of the 1960s and 70s stood firmly against her favored hyperrealism. “It boggles my mind, in the age of the web and everything so fast and fleeting, that someone wants to buy my work and show it, and people still want to look at it. In fact, people even seem to really like it now. Which, of course, makes me suspicious,” she said in 2017.

At the age of 81, Celmins continues to create and exhibit her work. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently coordinated a retrospective of Celmins’ drawings and paintings. The show was described by critics as “quietly ravishing, brilliantly installed.”

The upcoming sale offering Celmins’ Ocean Surface piece will begin online on July 30th, 2020, and run until August 9th. Works from other notable women artists will also be available, including a hyperrealist, life-size sculpture from Carole Feuerman and a lithograph collage from Kiki Smith. Visit Los Angeles Modern Auctions for more information and to place a bid.