Biography of Vija Celmins
The hugely influential Latvian-born artist, Vija Celmins, stunned the art world in the 1970s with her beautiful and illusionistic paintings of nature in tonal gradations of gray. Celmins is highly-sensitive to the psychological implications of the artistic process when making images, imbuing her photorealistic works with a strange contemplative sense.
Born in 1938, the artist fled to East Germany with her family during the Second World War before eventually abandoning Europe altogether and settling in the United States in 1948. Starting out as painter, Celmins was heavily influenced by the Abstract Expressionist movement whose work she saw on various visits to New York. Concentrating on mass media imagery early on in her career, Vija Celmins painted scenes of war and disaster that reflected on her early childhood experiences. Featuring warplanes, burning houses, guns, and riots, these violent visions from her youth were a response to the Vietnam War which was then at its height.
Vija Celmins is particularly well known for surface development and luminosity in her works, especially her haunting web depictions and negative images in charcoal or oil. Her renderings of natural scenes often lack a point of reference so that there was no discernible field of depth—in other words they appeared limitless. Revelling in the imperfection of nature and organic detail, Celmins would often work for months on a single image. Deserts, constellations, spider webs, and seascapes are Celmins' subject matter and are portrayed precisely and unflinchingly, and nearly always with a distinctive luminance.
Throughout her career Vija Celmins has continued her serial exploration of natural forms through the medium of oil paint, charcoal, pencil, drawing, sculpture, and of course printmaking. Celmins still lives in New York and has had major retrospectives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the ICA in London in 1996 as well as the Centre Pompidou in Paris. She is featured in most North American major art collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Highly collectable, Celmins' thoughtful editions and multiples are created with that unique and intricate attention to detail so central to the artist's practice.