Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964–1966 is the first exhibition to concentrate on an important segment of painter Vija Celmins’s career. Succeeding survey exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, that concentrated on her drawings and prints respectively, this exhibition, curated by Franklin Sirmans, is the first to look at a distinct period. Born in 1938 in Riga, Latvia, Vija Celmins has lived and worked primarily in New York since 1981. She immigrated to the United States with her family at the age of ten, attended the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, and completed an MFA degree at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1965.
The approximately 20 paintings and two small sculptures in the exhibition present her early output as a reflection on the mediated view of the first televised war. While Celmins often used photographs from nature as source material, and several of her early images came from an interest in painting common objects from the studio—such as a lamp or the television itself—this exhibition concentrates on images of war and the power of mediated representations. As images continue to multiply in the world around us, Celmins’s work from this pivotal time helps us reflect on the moment when the printed image gave way to the ubiquitous screen of the television, a transition updated since by the computer.
Celmins has since become known since then as a painter of refined representational images and for a palette focused on the gradations between black and gray, and her subjects include night skies, ocean waves, and spider webs. But the images that first piqued her interest were of war planes, smoking guns, and other images of death and disaster. In any event, the precisely rendered paintings suggest the importance of slowness in viewing art and an attention to detail, which is reflected in her equally patient process or creation. Though often associated with the Pop artists of the 1960s, Celmins’s work is equally indebted to conceptual art.
This exhibition is co-organized by the The Menil Collection, Houston, and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); it is curated by Franklin Sirmans, Terri and Michael Smooke Department Head and Curator of Contemporary Art, LACMA, with Michelle White, Associate Curator of The Menil Collection.
“Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster,1964–1966” is generously supported by Lannan Foundation, Karen and Harry Pinson, Janie C. Lee and David B. Warren, Lea Weingarten, Michael Zilkha, Barbara F. Lee, and the City of Houston.
Photos: Paul Hester