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Vija Celmins : biography

25 October 1938 -

Vija Celmins is an important Latvian-American visual artist best known for photo-realistic paintings and drawings of natural environments and phenomena such as the ocean, spider webs, star fields, and rocks. Her earlier work included pop sculptures and monochromatic representational paintings. Based in New York City, she has been the subject of over forty solo exhibitions since 1965, and major retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and Centre Pompidou, Paris.


Vija Celmins was born on October 25, 1938, in Riga, Latvia. Upon the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940, her parents and older sister Inta fled to Germany, surviving the refugee-despising Nazi regime, living in a United Nations supported Latvian refugee camp in Esslingen am Neckar, Baden-Württemberg. After World War II, in 1948 the Church World Service relocated the family to the United States, briefly in New York City, then on to Indianapolis, Indiana. Sponsored by a local Lutheran church, her father found work as a carpenter, and her mother in a hospital laundry. Vija was ten, and spoke no English, which caused her to focus on drawing, leading her teachers to encourage further creativity and painting.

In 1955, she entered the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, where she has said that for the first time in her life, she did not feel like an outsider. In 1961 she won a Fellowship to attend a Summer session at Yale University, where she met Chuck Close and Brice Marden, who would remain close friends. It was during this time she began to study Italian monotone still life painter Giorgio Morandi, and painted abstract works. In 1962 she graduated from Herron with a BFA, and moved to Venice, Los Angeles, to pursue an MFA at the University of California at Los Angeles, graduating in 1965. At UCLA, she enjoyed freedom, being far from her parents, leading to further artistic exploration. She lived in Venice until 1980, painting and sculpting, and working as an instructor at California State College, the University of California, Irvine and California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia.

In 1981, first drawn East by an invitation to teach at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, she moved permanently to New York City, wanting to be closer to the artists and art that she liked. She also returned to painting, which she had abandoned for twelve years, working during that time mainly in pencil. She later switched to using woodcuts, and then to eraser and charcoal, and added printmaking to her repertory. Since that time, she has worked out of a cottage in Sag Harbor, New York, and a studio loft on Crosby Street in Soho, Manhattan. During the 1980s, she also taught at Cooper Union and Yale School of Art.

In 2005, a major collector of her work, real estate developer Edward R. Broida, donated 17 pieces, covering 40 years of her career, to the Museum of Modern Art, as part of an overall contribution valued at $50 million. Especially noteworthy were the early and late paintings.


Working in California in the 1960s, Vija Celmins' early work, generally in photorealistic painting and pop-inspired sculpture, was representational. She recreated commonplace objects such as TVs, lamps, pencils, erasers, and the painted monochrome reproductions of photographs. A common underlying theme in the paintings was violence or conflict, such as war planes, handguns and riot imagery. A retrospective of the 1964-1966 work was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2011. She has cited Malcolm Morley and Jasper Johns as influences in this period.

In the late 1960s through the 1970s, she abandoned painting, and focused on working in graphite pencil, creating highly detailed photorealistic drawings, based on photographs of natural elements such as the ocean's or moon's surface, the insides of shells, and closeups of rocks. Critics frequently compare her laborious approach to contemporaries Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter, and she has cited Giorgio Morandi, a master of the pale grey still life, as a major influence. These works also share with Richter's an apparent randomness and thus apparently dispassionate attitude. It is as if any photograph would do as a source for a painting, and the choice is apparently unimportant. This is of course not the case, but the work contains within it the impression that the image is chosen at random from an endless selection of possible alternative images of similar nature.

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Living octopus

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