May 19, 2013


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Lot 160: Vija Celmins

Lot 160: Vija Celmins

Untitled (Knife and Dish)

Oil on canvas
Signed and dated verso
Canvas: 16" x 18"
LAMA would like to thank the artist for her assistance in cataloging this work
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist, 1964)
Estimate: $300,000 - $500,000
Price Realized: $587,500
Inventory Id: 5595

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Southern California is the birthplace for some of the most important contemporary art of the 20th century. A contemporary artist such as Vija Celmins (b. 1938) is greatly admired throughout the world, but many forget that she had her start in Venice, California. Though before she arrived in America, Celmins and her family fled their hometown of Riga, Latvia to escape the imminent Soviet occupation of 1944. After a brief stay at a United Nations refugee camp in Germany, they eventually found solace in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1948. As a 16-year-old art student, she traveled to New York City where she encountered paintings by de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionists. Her infatuation with Action Painting was short-lived however, and upon graduating the John Heron Art Institute, she moved to Los Angeles in 1962 to begin her MFA at the University of California, Los Angeles. According to Department Head and Curator of Contemporary Art at LACMA, Franklin Sirmans, “… it was between 1964 and 1966, before [Celmins] was thirty years old, that she created some of her most important pieces.”

“…When I came to L.A., I thought it was a new beginning,” recalls Celmins. From her studio at 701 Venice Blvd., she purged herself of what she knew – Abstract Expressionism, specifically the influences of Gorky and de Kooning – in hopes of finding her own artistic voice. Referring to the intense strokes employed in Action Painting, Celmins remembers, “I couldn’t resolve the stroke-making with the essential stillness of the painting.” In 1964, Celmins chose to venture into a minimal, almost primitive style, painting still lifes of common objects in her studio: a space heater, a fan, a lamp, eggs on a hot plate, cups, spoons, and forks. Painting these everyday objects, cloaked in muted grays, served as a way for Celmins to stop thinking and inventing; this was a period for her to revitalize her work and while doing so, she ultimately broke through to create a form of art that was entirely her own. Celmins describes the transition of her work in 1964 in an interview with Chuck Close: “I decided to go back to looking at something outside of myself. I was going back to what I thought was this basic, stupid painting. You know: there’s the surface, there’s me, there’s my hand. There’s my eye, I paint. I don’t embellish anymore, I don’t compose, and I don’t jazz up the colour.”

This brief period in Celmins’ early years in Los Angeles served as a breakthrough, the catalyst for the next phase, yet only a handful of her object paintings still exist. The objects in Untitled (Knife and Dish) (1964) rest alone in a vacuum, “relegated to a purgatorial no-man’s land” that suggest action without a table on which to rest or food to cut. Out of this stillness the viewer feels the tension of inaction, the heavy breathing of stasis, and the objects come to represent some unknown force from what lies ahead. In 1965, Celmins’ thesis show marked a pivotal point in her career, replacing the common, everyday objects from her studio with surreal, radical imagery, commenting on current and historical disaster. The cups, forks, and space heater were replaced with a rhinoceros, a smoking gun, and a World War II fighter plane. Her thesis show and first solo show at David Stuart Galleries propelled Celmins’ career and ultimately launched her to produce some of the most influential contemporary art of our time. Similar examples of Celmins’ object paintings from the same year remain in permanent museum collections, including Heater (1964) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Gun with Hand #1(1964) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Eggs(1964) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

Relyea, Lane, Robert Gober, and Briony Fer. Vija Celmins. New York: Phaidon, 2004. Print.
Sirmans, Franklin, and Michelle White. Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Print.