by Janell Lin
Vija Celmins is a Latvia-born American artist of the 1960s who produces drawing, prints, and paintings of photographs. She is most known for her monochrome rendition of allover, flat compositions of the ocean, moon, desert, and galaxy. This paper will discuss two prints by Vija Celmins in the Smith College Museum of Art: Untitled (Waves) 1970 and Untitled (Desert) 1971. The two prints reveal that although Celmins was influenced by modern artists and art movements of the 1960s, her exploration of spatial ambiguity, representation, the medium and the process imbue her works with a sense of human touch and contemplative involvement.
Encounters with Nature
Untitled (Waves) presents a small section of a vast water surface composed of an endless field of waves. There is no central focus, horizon, or reference point for viewers to orient their position. The larger and darker waves at the bottom and the smaller and lighter waves at the top of the paper create a slight sense of receding space. The drawing that produced this print is highly detailed and precise in its depiction of light and shadow. The drawing exhibits a high degree of control of the hand, resulting in an image of intense stillness and quietude that seems to freeze the swaying ocean surface. This level of detail would be impossible to achieve without the use of photograph. A past moment of the ocean surface is taken out of time and re-invested with the personal time of Celmins’s labor.
The ocean surface reveals several levels of spatial ambiguity derived from the representation of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. From afar, the print presents an expanding, lonely, and empty space. Close up, the image is overwhelmingly dense and packed with details. One focuses on the individual waves and loses sense of the overall ocean view. The image becomes a flat abstraction of repeating and rhythmic shapes. The print mimics a pencil drawing that describes waves using only subtle shades of light and shadow. The paper surface is constantly disrupted by the slightly raising and overlapping waves that create a sense of carving, like a sculpture. The print fluctuates between illusionary and abstract. It is simultaneously flat, spatial, and sculptural.
Untitled (Waves) is based on Celmins’s earlier photographs of the Pacific Ocean. In 1967, she rented a studio in Venice, California. She began to be interested in the ocean surface during her regular drive on the highway from Venice to Irvine. Celmins took photographs of the ocean every evening and during her regular drive near the ocean. Her friendship with environmental artist Doug Wheeler especially sparked her interest in the ocean in 1967. They shared an interest in the spaciousness and emptiness of the ocean and often took walks along the shoreline. In 1968, Celmins began making drawings of the ocean surface. Based on photographs, she also made prints and paintings of the ocean surface. The Ocean Series inspired Celmins’s subsequent series of monochrome depictions of the moon, desert, and galaxy.
Untitled (Desert) presents a small and non-distinctive section of the desert floor. The shadows and the light grey background present the vibrant sunlight of the desert. Celmins delineates each rock through contours and sharp shadows. Each rock describes its own space and the entire print is filled with countless rocks that constantly shift the small space they occupy. Celmins creates a slightly receding space by depicting the rocks at the bottom of the paper as larger and more spread out and rocks at the top as smaller and more tightly packed. The desert floor seems to be almost parallel to the picture plane and expanding infinitely beyond the paper borders. Only when looking closely does one discover the directions of shadows cast by larger rocks. They provide clues to the direction of sunlight and a slight sense of perspective.
The desert images came after the moon drawings made from 1969 to 1972. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969 and Celmins made drawings of the moon based on photographs taken from space. The Moon Series led to the Desert Series, because they share a similar appearance that suggests lifelessness and meaninglessness. Celmins was also surrounded by local artists including James Turrell and Tony Berlant, who admired the light and vast space of the desert. The desert series works are based on Celmin’s own pictures taken from the Mojave Desert near Death Valley, northeast of Los Angeles.
Celmins handles the desert space and surface differently than that of the ocean. While the ocean surface involves individual waves fragmenting the surface, the desert surface present rocks scattered on top of the desert floor. The waves cut into and raise above the ocean surface. The rocks sit on top of the desert surface. While Untitled (Waves) presents a distant view of the ocean, Untitled (Desert) presents a close-up observation of the desert floor. The ocean surface draws the viewers in, while the desert floor projects out toward the viewers. The juxtaposition of the two prints creates a complex spatial experience of looking at the distant and the close-up simultaneously. Despite their difference in scale and space, both prints give an odd sense of overall flat patterning. The two prints seem to be about being simultaneously flat and spatial, illusionary and abstract.
Printing and Drawing
Untitled (Waves) and Untitled (Desert) are lithographs made 1970 and 1971 respectively. Untitled (Waves) is a two-color lithograph on Rives BFK paper, and Untitled (Desert) is a three-color lithograph on Arches paper. Lithography is a printmaking technique that employs a process like drawing, and the resulting works may appear like pencil drawings. In 1968, Celmins turned her focus from painting to drawing. In retrospect, Celmins says that her lithograph prints in the early 1970s are primarily extensions of her interest in drawing. As lithograph prints, Untitled (Waves) and Untitled (Desert) are different from Celmins’s pencil drawings in two significant aspects. First, the lithograph prints lack the nuance and physical imprint of pencil and the textural build-up of graphite in a pencil drawing on paper. The lines of the prints are not as direct as pencil lines in picking up the movement and traces of the artist’s hand. Pencil and paper record Celmins’s hand movements and emphasize the time and action of making. The two lithographic prints thus appear less sculptural and bodily than Celmins’s drawings.
Celmins mainly made lithographs during the 1970s. By the 1980s, Celmins was experimenting with a wide range of printmaking techniques including dry point, mezzotint, and aquatint. The subtle difference between mediums and techniques becomes a major source of interest in Celmins’s later art. She says she seeks to let the image develop by letting the medium be the medium and the image be an armature. Throughout her fifty-year career, Celmins narrows her selection of imagery to the ocean, moon, desert, and galaxy. She has become increasingly focused on the medium and the method and the image becomes less important in her work. When the image remains constant, attention is focused onto the slight variations between each version, which reveal the different qualities of medium and technique.
Photography and Drawing
Both Untitled (Waves) and Untitled (Desert) are based on photographs. The precise details and suppressed range of tonal values match the formal qualities of the source, black and white photography. Celmins seeks to reveal the qualities of the medium and the process by removing gesture and composition in order to intentionally alter the image. She employs a painstaking process to make the prints look just like their source photo in composition, if not in the details of mark-making.
More than being just part of the process, the photograph is also the subject of the two prints. As a subject, photography complicates the relationship between the object, the photograph of the object, and the drawing of the photograph of the object. It adds a layer of distance between the viewers and the reference: ocean and desert. Because of the layer of camera mediation, the two prints demand a slow viewing process to understand the shallow space and the subtle shading. Photography also alludes to memories. The long time that Celmins takes to render each work involves a process of her observing, learning, deconstructing, and reconstructing. This process of making is mediated by her memory of the ocean and desert surface. In turn, the images record the time of the drawing process, suggesting a process of reverie to viewers who may recall their own memories.
Celmins also considers photography as an object to scan. The two prints are not reproductions of the actual ocean and desert surface, but photographs of them. Celmins exploits photography’s ability to hold an entire field on the flat surface. Celmins does not need to translate the three-dimensional space onto the two-dimensional surface, but instead is transcribing a flat surface onto another flat surface. By doing so, Celmins minimizes the gap between the art (the two prints) and the object (photographs of ocean and desert).
Celmins also uses photography to preserve flatness. Photographs depict space through a compressed range of value. The photographic image allows Celmins to emphasize the flatness of the picture plane. Photography is also a compositional device. The border of the photograph arrests the expansion of the seemingly infinite ocean and desert. Because the two prints are not a representation of actual ocean and desert but photographs of them, they do not cut off the object in the same way. This is another aspect that allows Celmins to transcribe the photo one-to-one and which minimizes the gap between the prints and the source object.
Influence of Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings were a direct influence on Celmins. Pollock pioneered the use of allover composition and the vertical picture plane. Allover composition allows every part of the canvas to be equally important. There is no distinction, emphasis, or reference point. The scale of space in the image is left an open question. The image seems to expand endlessly beyond the canvas boarder as if it has no relation to the size of the canvas. Celmins’ Ocean series and Desert series also adopt the allover composition. The allover composition of Untitled (Waves) and Untitled (Desert) does not allow the viewers to orient one part of the prints in relation to another. Viewers easily lose sense of the overall image of ocean and desert, which allows the prints to fluctuate between representational and abstract. This dispels visual hierarchy and opens alternative interpretations to the spaces depicted by the prints.
In addition, Pollock breaks down the divide between the horizontal plane of the world and the vertical picture plane, a tactic also employed in both Untitled (Waves) and Untitled (Desert). Traditionally, artists paint on the easel and look outward. The ground plane is horizontal and the vertical image captures this recession into space. Perspective is used to orient the viewers and describe distance. Pollock paints by pouring paint onto a canvas that lies on the floor. By laying the canvas flat on the floor, Pollock looks down on the canvas. The picture plane then becomes parallel to the ground plane, and the picture appears flat as every part of the canvas is the same distance from the viewer. In Untitled (Waves) and Untitled (Desert), Celmins also employs the angle of looking down on the ocean surface and desert floor, but at a slight angle. The surfaces of the ocean and the desert adhere to an almost vertical picture plane closely but not exactly parallel to the paper. The close parallel prevents spatial recession, which compresses the illusionistic space and emphasizes the flatness. However, the slight diagonally tilt from the picture plane creates a slight spatial recession that makes these works appear less abstract, in combination with the extreme naturalism of their composition and shading.
Both Celmins and Pollock are concerned with the physical material and bodily mediation in the process of creation. The two prints look regular from afar, but they become intimate and emphatically handmade upon closer look. Although Celmins deliberately removes the gesture and handwriting from her work, the two works reveal the touch and sensibility of Celmins. Each mark registers Celmins’ own touch on the paper surface and each subtle modulation suggests a slight change in her state of mind. Celmins’s awareness of herself and her body’s relation to the work owes much to Pollock’s action painting of physically pouring and dripping of the paint. Her aesthetic, however, relates much more to subtle illumination and intimate presence than the whole-body encounters evoked by Pollock’s drips.
Influence of Jasper Johns
Celmins’s use of photography also owes much to the work of Jasper Johns. Jasper Johns is most well-known for his 1955 painting Flag. It is a painting in encaustic (pigment suspended in wax) of the American flag, not a printout or a cloth flag. But the image is so iconic that it raises the question of whether it is a painting of a flag or an actual flag itself. The American flag is also a fixed iconic symbol, which traditionally prohibits artistic choices in color decision, composition, and invention.
Untitled (Waves)and Untitled (Desert) are two prints that appear very much like the objects they describe. The two prints are one-to-one transcriptions of the photograph. Like the Flag, the photographs are fixed, which prevents Celmins from artistic choices: gesture, composition, illusionistic invention. The two prints then raise the question of whether they are art or a copy/representation of the photograph. In a similar way as John’s Flag, however, Celmins makes clear through her painstaking process that her works are handmade and thus redefine the question of originality from a question of the image to a question of process.
Influence of Los Angeles Pop Art
Although influenced by ideas of Abstract Expressionism, Celmins was unsatisfied with expressionist painting. Pop art was an emerging art movement that responded to Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s. Instead of focusing on subjective emotions within the artist, Pop Art looks at everyday objects that surround the artist. Unlike Pop Art in New York that uses vibrant colors, Pop Art in Los Angeles employs a cool and indifferent style. Celmins lived in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. She began painting everyday objects in 1964. Celmins’s style at the time was similar to Pop Art in Los Angeles. She uses muted colors and removes embellishment or expressive gesture in her paintings. She sees herself as a neutralizer and a re-describer of the image.
Celmins’s artistic development soon moved out of Pop Art, which normally depicts human society. The two prints are void of human culture and meaning. Untitled (Waves) and Untitled (Desert) depict immersion in natural, cosmic settings that are remote from human civilization. Celmins says that she does not use the image of the ocean and the desert in a symbolic way, and they hold no personal meaning to her. The two prints are far from romantic depictions of nature. The lines seem highly ordered and controlled, giving the sense of objective and distance. It seems that Celmins strives to present nature in a way that is neutral, not socially or culturally specific.
Human Touch and Contemplative Involvement
The two prints straddle the line of machine-made versus handmade. At first glance, the prints are about the removal of humanity. The ocean and desert are lifeless places. It is not the human eye but the camera that captures the two images. The lines and shading are even and regular, without gesture, which makes the two prints resemble photographs.
Upon closer observation, viewers discover that the production of each print involves a prolonged meditative process and high degree of craft. Celmins says that the prints are not records of the source spaces (desert and ocean) or the source photographs, but a record of her “mindfulness” about the process of making. The mesmerizing waves and rocks that fill the two prints present her rigorous obsession with details and the immense amount of time she spends in observing and looking.
It is through the process of making that Celmins develops a long-term relationship with the images. Her personal touch and sensibility come through the two prints. The subtlety of the lines reveals gentle and careful hand movements during the process of making. They embed in the prints a sense of quietness and stillness that are not present in the photographs. The prints are images of almost nothing; it is the embodied, meditative, and caring process that makes the prints innately intimate and human.
Celmins uses a painstaking process to convey the message that Untitled (Waves) and Untitled (Desert) are nothing but themselves: unique, independent artworks that are not representations or symbols. They embody the physical material and the process in which they are made. Their formal and conceptual richness reflects the influence of artists and art movements of the 1960s. Yet the reflection on the medium and the creative process of the two prints reveal a contemplative neutrality that distances Celmins from the modernist category and characterizes her as a contemporary artist.
Rather than focusing on the dramatic, the two prints require viewers to look carefully and slowly to discover subtleties that are often taken for granted or neglected. First, the image of the ocean surface and the desert floor draw attention to the contemplation of nothingness and emptiness. Second, the two prints make clear the importance to the ink medium and paper support of the image. Third, the subtle modulations in the lines call attention to the artist’s hand and potential state of mind. It is the physicality and the artists’ awareness of making that distinguishes the print from the photograph. It is the subtlety and poetry that makes all the difference.
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