‘I Thought I Could Repeat One Image My Whole Life’: Watch Artist Vija Celmins Describe Her Labor-Intensive Process

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Time" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 2. © Art21, Inc. 2003.

Skeptics who dismiss contemporary art as something their kid could do would do well to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which on December 15 opens an exhibition of work by the New York-based, Latvian-born artist Vija Celmins. Rendered on an intimate scale with jarring precision, her works are something your kid could definitely not do. 

For the first time in more than 25 years, Celmins’s photorealistic drawings, paintings, and bronze sculptures are on view in an expansive North American survey. Viewers can experience her distillations of the natural world from the 1960s to the present, ranging from constellations in the night sky to waves cresting on the ocean. Her images have the gravity of Renaissance paintings, exuding a solemnity that is the product of serious psychological and physical work. 

“For a while I thought I would just repeat one image my whole life,” Celmins explained in an exclusive interview as part of Art21’s 2003 episode “Time.” This might sound like hyperbole, but Celmins is nothing if not methodical, almost obsessive.

The SFMOMA show brings together nearly 150 works by Celmins, including all five paintings she made of WWII fighter planes and a series of found stones displayed alongside bronze casts meticulously painted over the course of five years to precisely resemble the original objects.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Ocean) (1977). © Vija Celmins, photo: Don Ross, courtesy of SFMOMA.

It’s fair to say you probably won’t look at the ocean the same way again after seeing Celmins’s drawings, which she completed over 10 years between 1968 to 1977. (SFMOMA dedicates one gallery to the series.)

In conversation with Art21, Celmins describes staring at the ocean: “I thought, well I’ll just do this over and over and maybe something will show up that is amazing.” Although she eventually moved on from studying the waves, she tends to pick one object and stick with it—reproducing it across various media including prints, drawing, and painting.

The process is labor intensive. “I have redone the image many, many times, one on top of each other. And I paint it, and then I sand it off,” she told Art21. “This is all a part of the work… building a painting.” 

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory” is on view at SFMOMA from December 15, 2018 through March 31, 2019. The show travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Met Breuer in New York in 2019.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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