In Conversation

Vija Celmins with Phong Bui


On the occasion of her recent exhibit Vija Celmins: New Paintings, Objects, and Prints (April 29 – June 25, 2010) at David McKee Gallery, the painter welcomed Rail Publisher Phong Bui to her studio/loft in SoHo to talk about her life and work.

Portrait of the artist by Phong Bui

Phong Bui (Rail): Quite contrary to the notion of being prolific—and how the production of art has been perceived—which we know began in the 60’s with Pop Art—both of which have increased in demand in the last two decades due to the globalization in art that has emerged since the 80s, along with the desire to appropriate, you’re taking the opposite path; you always have. You are known for showing your paintings, only to take a few of them down to rework them. I appreciate what you confessed in an interview with Chuck [Close], published by A.R.T. Press in 1992, that your wish would be working on one painting for the rest of your life.

Vija Celmins: But I’m not the only one who says and does things like that. Making a work is a balance of things. You put a little emphasis here, you move it around, you try to build a form that’s going to stay there on its own. Then every time I see it I think, it’s just not really right. So it’s only natural that you would want to take it back and rework it even when it’s already hung in the gallery. And since I don’t make a lot of work, it’s important to me that I feel fairly resolute about it going out into the world on its own. It doesn’t really matter if you make tons of works that are part of an exuberant sort of thing for some artists. I tend to, like, drip into the work. I build my little relationship with the work and I give it my all, and it hopefully gives me back other things. I hate to break this relationship. You know at a certain point you think, okay, this is it, goodbye, I can’t do it anymore. Or sometimes I just set it aside, and see if it grows in my estimation. I tend to work on it a lot, because it’s like living your life, in a way. It’s an accounting for time, which remains in the work. And I’m not that interested in having too many ideas in the work. Actually, I’d prefer them to appear sort of effortless, as if it was really about nothing.

Rail: Especially from the perspective of the maker.

Celmins: I mean, I present these things as a kind of an evidence of me having organized this little space; with an image made so that it stays the way I’ve organized it. Maybe it refers to other things, but only mildly. Other than that the most interesting thing is what it is itself. I don’t manipulate that much. I basically sort of re-describe things that are in front of me, which I started doing from the beginning of my career. It in fact started maybe with Pop Art, which opened up this tendency to mimic something in real life, but I think that the work of art is really more about itself. It’s not an illustration of something that is absent, like the ocean for instance, which we don’t have on Crosby Street. I like to pin that image and put it in this other context by sort of manipulating the surface, how the image sits on it, how the paint fills it up and becomes a very physical reality. These subtleties are very difficult to talk about. I like to think that I wrestle a giant image into a very tiny area and make it stay there so that it seems inevitable that it is there. And that it remains there permanently.

Rail: The painter who was notorious for constantly reworking his paintings, even when they were sold and hung at the collector’s home, was Albert Pinkham Ryder. He would borrow them back so he could rework them.

Celmins: Yes, Ryder was a terrific artist who made a small amount of paintings. And when you look at those paintings you know that he’s been out in the moonlight, riding on the ferry. All of his paintings have this tremendous atmosphere, which is not the case in my work. I think my work is more fictional and skeletal than it is about atmosphere. I was never influenced by Ryder, but I liked the darkness in his work.

Rail: I only am referring to Ryder because the quality of paint has this porcelain-like surface, as if it has passed through fire in order to achieve that unyielding consistency.

Celmins: Yeah, he also painted with unconventional mediums, which included all kinds of candle grease, animal fats, and so on. Great, no? Whereas I tend to be very straight with my paintings except for the whole series of black paintings where I really repainted them over and over and then sanded them down in order to make an extremely impenetrable surface that looks kind of like Formica sometimes.

Rail: Tight.

Celmins: Very tight, very closed off so that you can’t penetrate. You have to really go around it to see if you can catch where to go in. Even though the image sort of beckons you in, the reality of the work is that it keeps you out. That’s what happens with “Dark Galaxy” (2000-2010), one of the old paintings, which I’m going to repaint one more time.

Rail: So when would you consider a painting finished?

Vija Celmins, "Darwin" (2008-10). Oil on canvas on board. 14 × 20 inches.

Celmins: When either you get so bored with it that you quit, or you can’t do anything to it anymore, so you just give it up. Also, I do have a certain sense where I just run out of energy because I tend to beat up on my work a lot, or I over-finish. One of my worst qualities is that I make a work impenetrable and strong. I have come to accept this tendency in my work.

Rail: What’s the mixture of your medium?

Celmins: It’s just the same mixture that I learned from the Herron School of Art and Design in Indiana, which was a quarter linseed oil or thickened linseed oil, a little less than a quarter of Damar [varnish], and the rest turpentine.

Rail: And did your training then, as an undergraduate, include working from still life and live models?

Celmins: Oh yes, we used to do these five-minute sketches of live nudes, which were my least favorite, since you know I like to stay with things for a while. Plus I can’t work with a human image that much, partly because it’s too packed with other meanings. I mean, I can relate to it, but I can’t seem to make it into a work. I know that Chuck can do it. He would take the whole human face apart, then, going along with his amazing system, he could put it back together in the painting. He’s so smart, Chuck. But I can’t seem to do that.

Rail: What was your experience like at Yale Norfolk in the summer of 1961? I know it was there that you met Brice [Marden], Chuck, David [Novros], Bill Hochhausen, and others.

Celmins: It was very exciting because I met people who were real artists. Remember, I came from Indiana. It was fantastic because we all had great conversations about art and music, among other things. I also met a lot of artists who were visiting from New York, and we all would occasionally come down to the city to visit museums and catch up with what was showing in galleries. It was that summer that made it possible for me to hide in my room and work like I used to do when I was a little kid. You know, I really should have gone to Yale for graduate school. I wonder what would have happened if I had gone to the East Coast. I would have been part of, you know, all those artists of my generation, Nancy Graves, Jennifer Bartlett, Richard Serra, Chuck, Brice, Rackstraw [Downes], Novros. But at the time I didn’t know that much. I was just riding my intuition and my own ability. So I went to L.A. instead.

Vija Celmins, “Table with Gun” (2009-10). Table: wood and acrylic, 3 found tablets, 1 made tablet: bronze, acrylic, alkyd oil, and pastel, 1 made gun: bronze, alkyd oil. 33 × 181/4 × 143/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and David McKee Gallery.

Rail: But before going to L.A. for graduate school at the University of California, Irvine, in the fall of 1962, you took a trip to Europe that summer.

Celmins: Oh yeah. I had been to the Chicago Art Institute Museum and the Museum of Modern Art—I especially love the Rousseau painting of the sleeping gypsy, which used to hang right off the stairway on the second floor. But other than that I had no idea whether you could really live the life of an artist until I was in Europe. I went with my boyfriend, and we just went from one museum to another with our mouths open. I remember we went to the Arena chapel to see those magnificent Giotto frescoes, and there was hardly anyone there. Then we went to the Prado to see Velázquez’s paintings.

Rail: You’ve spoken admiringly of his use of black, grays, and pinks.

Celmins: Right. But when I came back I started doing my Abstract Expressionist paintings, racing through different styles like a woman on fire.

Rail: [Laughs.] Chuck went through his de Kooning phase as well.

Celmins: That’s how he learned how to make his painting really strong, and stay right in there. I always think that de Kooning’s women are, like, stuck in chewing gum, and they’ve grabbed onto the canvas and they’re there forever, caught in the paint, they are paint.

Rail: Yes, yes. [Laughs.] Even though he considered the image to be like a glimpse. And, as I mentioned, when you came back from Europe you went to graduate school at Irvine. Were there particular teachers who were sympathetic to what you were doing?

Celmins: Arthur Levine, a wonderful painter, who I think now lives in Brooklyn. He makes quiet and beautiful paintings. A little bit Morandi-ish with somewhat of an American feel of the 40s. I don’t know whether he still paints that way. Then there was also Lee Mullican, who painted abstract paintings.

Rail: Matt Mullican’s father.

Celmins: Right. Who was a wonderful and positive teacher. Whatever I did he thought was just fantastic. Bob [Irwin] was there for a semester; he never came to anybody’s studios. He just sat in his office. You could go in and talk to him, and I did. At that time he was moving out of painting, and I was moving into trying to figure out how I was going to be a painter. So I was defending painting, because I had just come from seeing these fantastic paintings all over the world.

Rail: What was that like?

Celmins: Oh, he was a tough character, and I was pretty tough myself. We had some great talks.

Rail: Excellent. [Laughs.]

Celmins: I think what I learned in general was that you have to follow your own thing, and, when you find something you feel is right for you, which of course Bob Irwin did, you hang onto it like a dog on a bone. One time I went to visit him and he was in his office painting these little tiny dots and that gave me a sense of how extremely serious it was for him. As a young woman artist, and I used to think I could paint like Grace Hartigan. Or once I went to visit Georgia O’Keefe, and she wasn’t home, but her sister took me through the house, and I was so embarrassed.

Rail: In what sense?

Celmins: I don’t know, I was just embarrassed to be so voyeuristic. You know at that time there were very few women models. There were mostly men painters. I had a certain amount of feeling for making things, and I had the ambition to want to make some terrific paintings. For the most part I felt quite isolated, and think I spent a lot of time alone painting in the studio until I had my first show at David Stuart in L.A. (1966), which was like bringing WWII to the middle of L.A. when everybody else was looking at Duchamp and Andy Warhol. It was a crazy situation because we didn’t really have studios at school so everybody was all scattered throughout the city, which actually gave you a lot of freedom and the ability to make your own life as it was, with your own studio. Otherwise, Ferris Gallery was there. Walter Hopps did the first major Duchamp retrospective at Pasadena Museum (1963), which I didn’t understand much at the time. Only later did I come to understand that we’re all stuck in between Cézanne and Duchamp. Cézanne was probably the greatest painter, even though Picasso kept sticking up to him all the time. And there is Duchamp, who was not a great painter, but was a wonderful thinker about art. He really opened up the new century to artists who would have never gone in that direction. Then there was Surrealism. De Chirico, I liked his early work.

Rail: Guston liked his late work.

Celmins: I know, but Guston was a better painter than De Chirico was.

Vija Celmins, “Pistol” (1964). Oil on canvas, 241/2 °— 341/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and David McKee Gallery.

Rail: Guston also loved Morandi, whom I know you admire, and Morandi’s most admired painter was Chardin.

Celmins: I like Chardin, too.

Rail: Especially the late Chardins, depicting the modest interiors, which include kitchen maids in moments of reflection. They were generally painted with muted lighting and therefore created a quiet ambiance, which also is reinforced by the subdued color scheme. The series that made the depiction.

Celmins: You know that muteness exists in Vermeer, Chardin, and Morandi. I don’t know who else you would say, in contemporary art. Would you say Ryman? It’s hard to say.

Rail: It’d be hard to talk about silence or quietude.

Celmins: I tend to respond to work that has image so ingrained, so thoroughly built in with the painting.

Rail: Cemented, on the surface.

Celmins: Yes. So it would just quiet things down.

Rail: I like the way you describe your surface as “fat” or smooth like an old rubber tire.

Celmins: That’s what I was doing with the black paintings, which can take forever to get right. But the three new paintings, the two books covers “Darwin” (2008-2010) and “Japanese Book” (2007-2010), and “Shell” (2009-2010), are about painting in a much more natural way, where you just paint the image as directly as you can without much manipulation. I like the shell painting, actually, because I like the fact of putting something in a photograph and then redoing it and bringing it to life in another world.

Rail: But, as far as the early paintings are concerned—the so-called “life-sized” objects including the television, the portable electrical heater, the hot plate, the double gooseneck lamp, and so on—were painted from direct observation.

Celmins: Yeah, they were all painted from life. But, then I became interested in drawing these little bits and pieces that were torn out of magazines, which is also “real life.” I liked all those grays, and where did all of that gray come from? Maybe some Velázquez, maybe from the fact that I wanted to do the opposite of bright, colorful painting, maybe because I wanted to take all signs of technique out of my work, even though that is sort of impossible. No matter what you do, whether you project less or more of your personality, it seems to come out like something you would do. It’s a funny thing about it, isn’t it?

Rail: Oh, yes.

Celmins: So, now, with this show, I sort of went back to making some objects, like those stones that I did (“To Fix the Image in Memory” 1977-1982), partly because I had been doing all of these works in different media and I had not done anything dimensional. I think there is less abstraction in making objects. A relief, really, from the flat surface. Painting has so many rules, not just the ones you set up yourself, but the rules that have to do with a flat structure.

Rail: And you have to deal with that flatness.

Celmins: Maybe that’s why I went back to the objects. When I did the first casting of the little slate tablets five or six years ago, I realized that it was quite close to the black paintings, except that instead of an artist’s made surface, its surface was already made by school kids and time. Beautiful black grays made by someone else.

Rail: When did it all begin and what attracted you to the objects?

Celmins: Well, I began to collect them in Sag Harbor, where I have a little house, as early as the late 1980s. I liked them because they had a feeling of where I came from in my childhood in Latvia. This show seems to have a narrative, but it’s just not that clear what kind of narrative it really is. This work is about looking, like an invitation to look. I asked my friend, Ed Finnegan, to make a couple of those tablets as close to the original as possible so I can paint on them afterward. I think “the art part in the art” as de Kooning once said, is maybe only about five percent of a work. I sort of re-described this little tablet and my whole energy and power of invention are in making it as thorough as I can, and then there’s this sort of childish delight afterwards that I have done it. That I’ve put them together and you have to really look, look, look, and then you say, oh, she’s made this one. For me it’s not so easy to jack yourself up to do the work. Especially when you’re just over 70, as I am now. And I have all these memories in my head and all of these things that I have to take care of, and all of the books that I want to read. To bring myself, then, up to that level of devotion that making work is, it’s sometimes hard to be inspired. But I somehow found a way to make myself go. Like, jumping on the train, and there it goes and I’m on it and every day unfolds with little tiny nuances of things. It took about three years to do this show, really, even though I started it a little bit earlier. So I don’t know. The tablets have always been sitting around in the studio. I looked at them everyday, and I always liked the grays and the blacks, so it was natural that I would make something out of them one day.

Rail: Well, I identify them as part of your continued exploration of the grayscale.

Celmins: And it goes back and forth between making the object and painting the object. This show has different things in it. For one thing it has a reach back for the gun I painted in 1964.

Rail: Which, of course, brings up this whole political reference to the period of the 1960s.

Celmins: Yeah, but my work is not political, but I think it does have some ominous imagery.

Rail: Like the work in 1964, in which you painted that same image of a hand holding a gun three times, of which I only saw two [“Gun with Hand #1, (1964), “Pistol” (1966)] at the Whitney retrospective in 1993.

Celmins: I don’t know where they all are.

Rail: In any case, that prophetic image that you painted was four years before Eddie Adams’s iconic photograph of the police chief general of the South Vietnamese Army, Nguy?n Ng?c Loan, executing a Viet Cong prisoner, Nguy?n Va˘n Lém on February 1, 1968.

Celmins: Oh. That was a terrible image. Actually, that painting of the gun was one of the few paintings where the action was invented. Initially, I had my boyfriend holding the gun, which was given to me, and no longer worked. I took pictures of it and then I got these gun magazines to see how it would look when you shot it and that’s how I invented that little theater with the smoke coming out like special effects. It’s like a little theater. I don’t know now why I wanted to put the blackboards and the gun together on a small table. I just felt that they all seemed as if they wanted to be together, so I stuck them together. But, I’m reminded that Jasper named a work of his “Racing Thoughts.” As you get older you have so many thoughts running the track. I think this one escaped me in this particular configuration.

Rail: To me, all those flying airplanes [“Suspended Plane” (1966), “Flying Fortress” (1966)], dramatic scenes of things on fire, houses on fire [“House #2” (1965)], hand shooting the gun, are actually less terrifying than the early painted household objects.

Celmins: It’s true that they do have their little ominous qualities about them.

Rail: What can you tell us about the painting “Time Magazine Cover” (1965) with the three images of the Watts riots?

Celmins: I was in L.A. at the time that it happened; we were so crazed and extremely disturbed. So many people were killed and injured, and thousands were arrested. I guess that it was my own way of responding to the event, but I also liked the beautiful grays, and I thought I could make a painting out of it. But after I did it I thought it was too sensational. I didn’t want the subject to be so sensational.

Rail: But the riots were symptomatic of the time, certainly tied with, in the same month of August, the Beatles’s first U.S. concert in Shea stadium in New York. Dylan released his landmark album, Highway 61 Revisited.

Celmins: That was a hippie time, sex, and rock’n roll, art, and politics all tied with each other. There was an incredible feeling of change, and if I hadn’t been in my studio all the time I would have been more of a part of it. But at the same time I was always guarding my own—what I thought was my own—activity, ambition to be an artist. Also, I never wanted any political content in the work. At least for me, because I’m more interested in just making the painting, as if they hold some deeper truth.

Rail: There is also an anti-romantic aspect in your work, but at the same time I sense a subtle glint of nostalgia lying below the surface.

Celmins: I don’t know whether nostalgia is real. I don’t think you can have those kinds of emotions in the work, even though the work has allusions to many things, in spite of your intention to keep them out. What I really want to do is to concentrate on making a very strong work, a work that’s going to stay there without me. But I would not say that I’m a real expressive artist of my feelings about war, even though those early images may suggest such connections. You could also say that those images are quite naïve and childlike in that they have a little bit of a toy-like quality, compared, for instance, to a painter like Otto Dix, or Leon Golub, who can really illustrate the real horrors of war. There might be a time when you would feel that this is the only way you could ever make art. But I’ve had the privilege of living in a world where I could make other choices.

Rail: What about the notion of time as something that cannot be isolated and broken down like the measured time of timetables or clocks, but rather as something lived, which is important to memory? Then there’s this whole situation referred to as “nomadic flux,” which Dave Hickey brought up in his essay on your work (“Vija Celmins: The Path Itself”) via Deleuze and Guattari’s book A Thousand Plateaus. He suggested that a nomad is someone who doesn’t have to move much. He or she can actually practice nomadology while being in one place. Their mind is capable of relating to various trajectories of their memory, then reconstructing those images from their even memory with even greater freedom.

Celmins: I don’t know about that, because this nation is full of people like you and me. Just about every one of us is immigrant. All I know is that I always thought that I would have loved to have been a painter that stayed in one place like Cézanne and built up the patina of my studio instead of having to rebuild it all the time from place to place. I’m a very studio-oriented artist, which I think a lot of artists are not anymore. Most artists have learned how to adapt to new conditions. But for me, I get so attached to a certain light and space, where I feel safe to make my fiction.

Rail: As long as the vision is radical. Radical is a word which can be easily misinterpreted. We tend to forget that the meaning of being radical is about going to the root or origin.

Celmins: That’s true. And once you learn the language of looking at things, you can understand how things look the way they do. Yet making art is really a shot in the dark, in which you don’t really know what is going to happen. And you don’t know whether it will work, you don’t know whether anyone is going to respond to it. I’m amazed so many people are willing to do it. You know, when I was starting out, there weren’t that many women that were making art that I liked. And, now there are so many women making pretty terrific art and have been for the last 30 or 40 years. And now, there are thousands of people who want to be artists. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad, but I think, well, what about science? I’ve always liked the anonymous quality of the scientific image.

Rail: Chuck does too.

Celmins: I know, but he takes pictures of his friends and makes them sort of anonymous, whereas as I do the opposite. I take an anonymous sort of image and make it sort of, more intimate. But to get back to your earlier question about being nomadic, the most homes I’ve had have been in New York. I’ve been here longer than I’ve been anywhere in the world. I’ve been to Latvia, Germany, Indiana, and California, and still sometimes people think of me as a Californian artist. I understand it. There’s a time when you are in your 20s and maybe in your early 30s when the whole idea of making something is so much of a fire in you and then you make these friendships and you look at each other’s art. I often think that’s such a wonderful time. I wish I’d had more camaraderie instead of feeling a little more isolated than I did. But now I don’t even think about it one way or another, because now I realize we’re all sort of alone. I just don’t think there’s an avant-garde or movement anymore. It’s relatively grim in the art world. It’s every man for himself, but at the same time full of wonderful surprises. As for my work, which is not that entertaining, or about entertainment, the one thing that I always wish to have is my small handprint, so that it would be considered one gesture from one human being to another.

Rail: About the night sky paintings, I always wanted to ask you, with all of the subtleties of gray tones embedded in the white stars and the black sky, how do you build up the surface while controlling the balance of tones?

Celmins: Well, the rather boring technique is this: what I do is I first draw in a pattern that breaks the surface, and then I draw the different sizes of circles for the stars. Next, with a small sable brush, I apply a tiny drop of liquid rubber; it hardens and I build up to a desirable thickness. I then paint different layers of ivory blacks that have been mixed with burnt umber, ultramarine blue, and sometimes with a bit of white. And I use alkyd, which takes about two days to dry, and once it’s dry, I then take off the little rubber bumps, which create those little holes with various kinds of white, which is mixed with a little bit of cerulean blue, and sometimes with raw umber or yellow ochre.

Rail: What kind of white?

Celmins: A combination of titanium and zinc white. And I keep filling those holes until they come up to the same level as the black surface.

Rail: That’s intense.

Celmins: And I often sand it a little, so that the whole surface is totally uniform, flat, and has very tight skin.

Rail: Which reminds me of the silky smooth surface of Gorky’s masterpiece “The Artist and His Mother” (1926-1929) at the Whitney.

Celmins: I love that painting. I don’t know how he gets that beautiful surface.

Rail: I think he used razor blades to scrape off any excess of paint in each layer he painted.

Celmins: I have also used razor blades and sand paper on my painting. But sometimes I feel my black paintings are on the edge of being quite fetishy.

Rail: I see it as being sensual.

Celmins: I like what Bill Berkson said of them, that they are a kind of pictorial masonry. 

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Phong Bui

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