Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory
Memory is, by its nature, the antithesis of what is remembered; on the other hand, it may be the only way the past can be actualized, brought into the present so that it becomes alive again.
—Walter Benjamin, “On Copy”
On ViewThe Met Breuer
September 24, 2019 – January 12, 2020
Vija Celmins began her career with the ambitious goal of wishing to remove gesture, composition, and the artist’s personality from the work of art. Her aim was to pare the work down to its essence. At the University of California in Los Angeles her training was in abstraction, but when she graduated, she removed herself from this ideology. “I thought I would sit down without all my theories and aesthetics,” the artist explained in an Art 21 segment titled “Time,” which is quoted in the wall text of her Met Breuer exhibition. “I was going to start in a more humble place with just my eyes and my hand.” This decision to cut herself from any specific affectation can be understood as an attempt at creating a tabula rasa from which to begin, again, with her desire to focus solely on one object before her—a philosophical decision as much as an aesthetic one.
The exhibition is installed chronologically throughout two galleries, allowing viewers to witness the movements in the artist’s 50-year career. Her earlier work, made in Los Angeles from the mid-1960s, is displayed on the fifth floor and includes two sculptures of everyday objects: an oversized pencil and a set of erasers that allow us to observe her training her eye to concentrate on one discrete object. Also on the fifth floor are her paintings based on objects, which document her shift from paintings based on concrete objects to paintings made from photographs of objects. For example, Gun with Hand #1 (1964) depicts an actual object, a gun she found in her apartment. But rather than paint the object directly, she had her boyfriend hold the gun, took a photograph of this, and then made a painting of the image.
Celmins’s work gains its importance through the labor of making as the artist articulates in the ART 21 segment: “The only part that I think is of any value is the making itself. And the things about it that are interesting are that you’re making something that is basically unsayable.” This “unsayability” might be understood as the transference of meaning from one object to another (the work of art). Like the work of a scribe, Celmins’s intensive labor accrues meaning through concentration. One small painting, for example, took Celmin’s over a year to make.
Such work, mimetic in nature, necessitates an abandonment of the world. To scribe, to spend hours of one’s day, every day, copying the words of another artist or, as in Celmins’s practice, painstakingly copying the details of an object and, at the same time, attempting to remove all trace of one’s self, requires the artist to enter the object, and, in doing so, to leave the world. Akin to a small death, this practice is meditative in nature. In trauma, the mind leaves the body, dissociating, as a means to protect one’s psyche from the traumatic event. One antidote to this is to focus on one object: grounding one’s self in the present moment. Over the years, Celmins’s work has become more committed to the practice of fixing herself to the image. In this way, she folds herself into the work the same way the object she is copying is folded into the artwork. As Walter Benjamin writes in “On Copy,” “a copy can be understood as a memory.” Literally, when one makes a copy, one creates a memory of the original object. Indeed, Celmins’s art is deeply rooted in the work of memory: both the labor-intensive work of scribing, which presses the work being copied into the memory of scribe’s mind, and the act of copying, which results, as Benjamin writes, in a memory.
In the fourth-floor galleries are Celmins’s most known work, her Night Sky drawings in charcoal, which are installed next to a display of antique children’s slate blackboards she began collecting in the 1980s. Juxtaposing the variously-sized boards, the Night Sky drawings give the impression of being made on blackboard, as if the artist used chalk to make the small white marks depicting stars. Conceptually, then, one imagines that were the work actually made on such a surface, it could be erased immediately, resulting in a blank slate, a tabula rasa. Of course, these drawings are not made on boards, but the trace of the chalkboards remains in the mind when one enters the gallery and, as a result, they inform the way one registers the drawings. Celmins’s work is deeply rooted in the idea of erasure, of disappearance. Indeed, though it is her hand at work in the artworks, by copying, she vanishes from the work.