The painter Vija Celmins has long been an outlier in narratives of postwar American art. Extensive formal analysis of her work, from her early still lifes to her later night skies and ocean surfaces, shows that Celmins was deeply invested in the issues of time, entropy, and energy that proved crucial to her contemporaries, like Robert Smithson and Hans Haacke. However, Celmins found ways of objectifying energy through naturalistic representation and the most traditional of media, painting and drawing. She explores these issues by discovering contradictions within classical mimesis.
In an interview with Chuck Close, Vija Celmins describes the inspiration for her early still-life paintings of household appliances:
I think that it [the still lifes] came about because I had been painting in an abstract expressionist manner and I had been trying to make my strokes – – the painting space – meaningful. I had tried to do passionate kinds of things because I was full of energy, like I think you [Chuck Close] were, like we were when we were twenty years old. A couple of years later I began to feel that there was no meaning in it for me. I lost my way, I rejected it. I couldn’t resolve my stroke making with the essential stillness of the painting. So then I went back to some basic thing, like looking at simple objects and painting them straight, trying to rediscover if there was anything there that might be more authentic. But the object paintings came out sort of twisted, with more energy in them than was needed.
Celmins defines painting in terms of energy, or more specifically, the lack thereof. Painting is low energy; it is essentially still. Even when depicting inert objects like a fan or a lamp, she feels that there was too much energy to her paintings. In a different interview, she raises the issue of energy again in slightly different terms: “I came to the conclusion that color was really gross, it was too spatial, too violent, too expressive of itself. Besides it was so indiscriminately joyful. The yellows are coming, the blues are going and the reds are ready.” Color is also too energetic. It lends itself too easily to metaphor and connotation and evokes dynamic spatial relationships too readily – hence the artist’s career-long love of grays. “In gray there is no possibility of movement,” said Wassily Kandinsky. Celmins expresses a distaste for composition for similar reasons: “I did it [the still lifes] very dead pan without really composing. I was trying to get back to something I really liked about the activity of painting without all this planning and plotting and putting one shape against another and one line against another. I wanted to get away from manipulation which I began to think was fooling me.” Facture can also pose problems, as it indexes the energy of the painter’s hand. “One of the things that irritated me,” she says, “was that in painting I had a flat surface and I was sticking an object, like the lamp, in there. One of the ways I tried to minimize this was by keeping a totally even surface without any brushmarks.” Anything that could appear as if the artist were expending mental or physical energy, whether composing a picture or slapping on paint (especially in bright colors), could not be countenanced.
Like most artist statements, Celmins’ remarks do not always or exactly describe her process; yet still, the commitment to “low-energy” painting is evident throughout her work. Contrary to her words, Celmins’ early still lifes are of course composed. They possess clear figure-ground relations, and are not characterized by the non-compositionality or allover-ness that was a hallmark of twentieth-century painting – and which Celmins herself would explore later in her career. But Celmins did choose to make these still life compositions as boring as possible. The almost square format of Fan and Heater (fig. 1), both painted in 1964, is one that artists are admonished to avoid due to its lack of dynamism. Her more rectangular compositions from this period are equally dull, with their subject matter at or near the center of the picture surrounded by a non-descript, dun-colored background. The still lifes are also quite visibly painted, despite her professed aversion to visible facture. In Hot Plate (fig. 2), for example, the coiled heating element is made up of neatly nested orange arcuate strokes, which taper and blur as the picture recedes into depth.
There is a patent self-conscious amateurism to these early still lifes. It’s as if, once Celmins achieved a certain degree of likeness, she simply stopped painting. Too finished and the painting might be too illusionistic; too unfinished and it might be too expressionistic. She instrumentalizes this subtle non-finito quality to still movement and drain her paintings of dynamism, an effect most apparent in her two 1964 paintings of a hand firing a pistol (fig. 3). Celmins based these works on a photograph she took of her erstwhile boyfriend holding a pistol that was never fired. Like her still lifes, they exhibit a perfunctory kind of figuration, with basic volumes and shadows indicated against a dimensionless, neutrally colored background; but the energy of such dramatic and what for the artist must have been antithetical subject matter is performatively dampened and dissipated by the paint handling. Compared to Harold Edgerton’s famous photographs of firing guns and flying bullets (fig. 4), Celmins’ Hand with Gun paintings are decidedly less exciting. The smoke was invented, and accordingly it impresses as non-committal: because it is painted with a dry brush on a heavy weave canvas support, the smoke appears to sit on top of the painted background rather than being atmospherically integrated into its imaginary space. In contrast to the explosiveness captured by Edgerton, Celmins’ smoke looks stuck. Instead of showing a dynamical process unfold, both versions of Hand with Gun drain that process of action. The pistol paintings, like the early still lifes, show the artist’s realization that the best way to convey a sense of stillness is to slow and bestill what for her is an otherwise kinetic event. (Of course, a turned-off fan or a lamp is not most people’s idea of kinetic, but we have to recalibrate our expectations to meet those of Celmins.) In this way, her paintings are not simply inert; rather, they represent inertia as it sets in, imposing on the world of activity and movement that stillness that she sees as essential to the medium of painting
Celmins’ disdain for energy in painting echoes the prevailing attitudes of artists and critics in the 1960s about what art should and should not be. She cites as an influence one of the most extreme texts in this vein, Ad Reinhardt’s “Twelve Rules for a New Academy.” Originally published in Art News in 1957, Reinhardt’s manifesto is almost comically proscriptive. Included among the 12 rules are no texture, no brushwork, no sketching or drawing, no forms, no design, no color and no space. Two of Reinhardt’s prohibitions are especially important for Celmins: no time and no movement. Quoting unnamed sources, Reinhardt says of time, “‘Clock-time or man’s time is inconsequential.’ ‘There is no ancient or modern, no past or future in art. A work of art is always present.’” He is equally aphoristic about movement, invoking de Tocqueville: “‘Everything is on the move. Art should be still.’”
Celmins found further support for her pursuit of stillness in the work of Giorgio Morandi (fig. 5). An irony of Morandi’s paintings is how, like Celmins’, they manage to evoke stillness in spite of their visible brushwork and quivering edges. Celmins says of her first experience viewing his work, “I discovered how strange the [Morandi’s] painting was, how the objects seemed to be fighting for each other’s space. One could not determine their size and location.” She concludes:
I had been making large, semi-abstract paintings while in art school … but I believe this confrontation with Morandi’s work, as well as, the influence of object-making Pop artists, moved me toward making a more focused, observed painting, more about the eye and looking, the eye and the object. The result was a series of paintings of objects from my studio done from 1963 to 1966 that I consider to be some of my first mature work, and that seem to have the stillness of Morandi about them.
By stillness Celmins does not mean stasis. I would argue, as I suggested above, that stillness in Morandi and Celmins is best conveyed through an asymptotic approximation of inertia rather than by stillness itself. Morandi’s paintings always seem on the verge of coming into focus, like a mirage, but never do – nor, importantly, does time seem to stop, but it does seem to be slowing down. One of the reasons why Hot Plate and Heater effectively convey a sense of stillness is that they are not quite static. We have all had the experience of watching a heating element turn from black to orange. The beginning and the end of this process are the most suspenseful (relatively speaking): when will I start to notice the element change color and when will it stop changing color? In both instances, there is a brief period of uncertainty when we can no longer rely on heat or color to mark the passage of time; in either case, our perception of time is slowed or arrested. Put another way, her art registers the difficulty of staying still; even when holding one’s breath and standing perfectly still, one can nonetheless feel the heart pulsing and the muscles’ micro-adjustments.
In a different vein than Morandi, the object-making Pop artist most important to Celmins’s pursuit of stillness is Jasper Johns (fig. 6). Leo Steinberg might as well have been talking about Celmins when he wrote of Johns, “In observing these standardized things [the flags, targets, light bulbs, cans of beer, and so forth] we sense an unfamiliar deceleration of their normal rate of existence. The flag stiffens, is slowly hand-painted, and – as an end stage of a process that began with the arrest of its flutter – cast in bronze. The Stars and Stripes forever.” Much like in Celmins’ work, the instantaneousness of apprehension precipitated by Johns’ commonplace objects is always undercut by his paintings’ distinctive facture.
* * *
This is the place to ask what Celmins really means by stillness. The subject matter of her early still lifes gives a clue: a fan, a lamp, a hot plate, an electric skillet, a heater, a television are all appliances, things that can be turned on and off – a fact further testified to by the visible electric cords in her paintings. Likewise, a gun can be fired. Steaming hot soup can grow cold. An airmail envelope can be opened. These are all things that have the potential to expend energy. I would argue that, from the beginning of her career in the early 1960s to today, Celmins has been investigating the second law of thermodynamics: the notion that the entropy, or disorder, of a closed system only ever increases. The second law of thermodynamics explains why a cracked egg never reassembles itself, or why, when you place a hot cup of coffee next to a cold one, the cold one gets warmer and the hot one gets cooler, until they reach an equilibrium temperature. It also explains why the heat or light generated by a household appliance will dissipate in the surrounding space, why an airmail envelope will not seal itself back up again, and why a bullet will not zoom back into its shell casing. This is to say that Celmins is a painter of if not death then dying; hers is an art of enervation.
To characterize Celmins’ work as an art of enervation helps to put it in dialogue with the art of her peers during the 1960s and after – a much-needed task, as the vanishingly small body of criticism on Celmins has long struggled to categorize or historically contextualize her work. Early criticism on the artist proceeds apophatically by telling us what Celmins is not. In a positive review of her first retrospective at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1980, the critic Christopher Knight wrote that the artist’s work “has too often been misread as everything from plain Pop art to standard photorealism.” In a review of the same exhibition, William Wilson also stressed Celmins’ difference from what he calls “New Realism,” his term for photorealism; instead, he suggests rather cryptically that she “makes poetry in flight from itself.” In addition to being neither a photorealist nor Pop artist, Max Kozloff has said that her seascapes are neither like Claude Monet’s Nymphéas nor John Marin’s aquarelles.
The small group of critics that took Celmins’ work seriously at the beginning of her career could appreciate its novelty and, most importantly, its subtlety, and they were also (rightly) reticent to peg it to any specific trend or style. Yet they often reverted to some kind of obfuscation. The critic Rosalind Wholden, in what is likely the earliest review of the appliances from 1964, wrote that Celmins “duplicates the mystic’s power to fill common things with strangeness.” William Wilson would repeat this sentiment about mysticism ten years later in a different review from the one cited above. Talk of mysticism is an expression of the critic’s own mystification, a metaphor for what cannot be articulated about Celmins’ art; it is not to say that Celmins is an artist interested in mysticism. In an equally obscure vein, the catalog of the artist’s retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2018 forwards the notion that her art is about “redescription.” It is never explained what exactly is meant by redescription, nor what difference there is between Celmins’ redescription and that of any artist making naturalistic representations. “Mysticism” and “redescription” are placeholders for whatever visual effects Celmins’ art produces.
Instead, in this article, I will show that, from her earliest still lifes to her most recent work, Celmins’ art of enervation has consistently explored the same themes that preoccupied other artists of her generation, such as: energy versus entropy, duration versus instantaneity, ideation versus realization, and the finite versus the infinite. Yet, she does so by mining the paradoxes inherent to illusionistic representation, especially as they pertain to the specific medium of painting. The thematic connection between Celmins and her peers has often been overlooked, for the artist came of age at a time when both illusionism generally and painting specifically had fallen out of fashion.
To say that Celmins’ work entails a bestillment of painting or the objectification of duration puts her in dialogue with the high priest of entropy, Robert Smithson. For Smithson, entropy was not only a physical process, it was also a metaphor and a means to conceptualize time outside of anthropocentric and organismic models of history like progression, dialectics or teleology, all of which are models that emphasize growth, accomplishment and succession – or, more crudely, great men doing great things. For him, history was akin to a petering out of human activity. Entropy meant decay as well as an increasing homogenization of human civilization.
As many scholars have shown, Smithson’s interest in entropy was part of a larger reconsideration of time during that era. Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Op Art, Kinetic Art, video, and performance have all been tied to changing ideas of time in art. The majority of criticism on time in 1960s art, however, has understandably focused on sculpture, installation and performance. These mediums more obviously engage issues of time for the reason that some amount of duration is required in order to rudimentarily apprehend the work. There was also a growing sense among the proponents and critics of Minimalism and its offshoots that painting was nearing its end as a medium of serious artistic attention, or at least was in danger of doing so. In this article, I aim to show how Celmins’ engagement with illusionistic representation is in fact informed by, and integral to, the discourses of post-1960s art.
* * *
After the household appliances, Celmins transitioned to paintings based on old photographs of WWII military aircraft and other violent imagery. These works deal with the question of duration, stillness and entropy differently. Photography would seem to be especially well suited to an artist interested in stillness. Since the early twentieth century, photography has been dominated by this idea. Although we customarily think of photographs as stopping time, even the highest speed stroboscopic photographs, like those of Edgerton above, are nonetheless durational. The shutter is briefly opened, exposing the film or sensor to light, and just as quickly closed. The duration, however, is so short relative to how humans experience time that one treats the final photograph as if it effectively captured a moment of zero duration. The photograph exposes humans’ “durational blindness,” to borrow a phrase of Caroline Jones.
Accordingly, the war and disaster pictures of the mid-1960s dilate the ostensible instantaneity of their source photographs. Suspended Plane (fig. 7), for instance, is based on a photograph which originally had such a short exposure time that it captured the propeller in mid-rotation, making it appear as if the plane were not moving and were actually suspended in space.
Their paint handling is tighter than the early still lifes, and they make for a counterintuitive choice of subject matter after the artist’s stated refusal of movement and expression. The dramatic escape of the Celmins family from the German and Soviet occupations of Latvia during the war, and their time spent in refugee camps in Germany before finally settling in Indiana in the 1940s, lends the war pictures an irrevocably biographical valence – one which the artist has consistently minimized in interviews. While Celmins did experience WWII first hand, the source images for this body of work came from sundry, widely available sources, which have no direct bearing on the Baltic experience of the war. Rather than understand these works biographically, the stress of the argument will fall on how these works relate to the themes of energy and time in the artist’s oeuvre. Paintings like Suspended Plane, Flying Fortress, Burning Plane, Explosion at Sea and Burning Man are drained of dynamism. From a distance, they appear relatively photographic, but upon closer inspection they quickly melt into smudged clouds of green-blue grays. They lack the licked surfaces, sharp contours, and extreme illusionism associated with photorealism, as the grisaille tonality and balanced paint handling keep the subject matter from becoming too focused and too present.
Celmins says that she treats “the photograph as an object, an object to scan.” By treating the photograph as an object, she is not saying that the photograph is an image, that it is something we see through; instead, she is saying that the printed photograph on paper is the subject of her painting. “Picking up photographs is like picking up rocks,” she says elsewhere. This emphasis on the materiality of the photograph can be seen in Suspended Plane in the scattering of carefully rendered foxing stains in the gray field surrounding the aircraft, especially in the picture’s upper half. Celmins’ choice to preserve the foxing accentuates the flatness and material specificity of the printed photograph. The weave of the canvas is clearly visible from edge to edge and the whole painting seems to be coincident with the surface of the fabric support. There are no visible peaks or valleys; there is instead an equilibration of painting and picture. A close look at the 17 in Suspended Plane reveals that the light gray of the “7” and darker gray of the tail are in fact right next to one another; there is no sense that the 17 is on top of the gray tail. The black shadows beneath the wing and on the empennage, as well as that cast by the port engine on the fuselage are also not fully integrated into the composition and read as too dark and sharp. Treating the photograph as an object allows the artist to smuggle composition, illusion and perspective back into the picture, without having to expend energy composing. For Celmins, the defining attributes of traditional painting were not something to be simply jettisoned, but rather to be overcome. “I have long been interested in building a form in painting,” says the artist, “It’s hard to define the word form, but I wanted to make a work that is multidimensional and that went back and forth in space yet remained what it was: a small concentrated area that was essentially flat.” The way Celmins builds this “form” that goes “back and forth in space” is through a subtle adjacency of pictorial elements.
In a slightly earlier, transitional work between the still lifes and the war paintings, T.V. (fig. 8), which shows a plane that has been blown apart and falling out of the sky as seen on a television set; there is no difference in facture between the exploded plane – what would ordinarily be the dematerialized televisual image – and the rest of the painting surface. Where the smoke of the explosion should be recessed further in space, the paint, once again, is flush with the canvas support, pulling the image forward to be coincident with the picture plane. (The smoke looks like flour that has been rubbed into the canvas, like the smoke in Hand with Gun, but brighter.) T.V. is an important work because it demonstrated to the artist how to dampen traumatic imagery. Television served as a natural tool for thinking about war and violence at a distance – a distance made unbridgeable by the fact that televisions can be turned off. (Here, again, the electrical cord is visible.) The exploding plane is brought closer to the viewer vis-à-vis the work’s facture, and thus T.V. does in paint what the television does electronically: surmount physical distance. At the same time, however, the painting is televisual in the equal and opposite sense, in that it can reinforce psychic and physical distance between the viewer and the object.
Around 1968, Celmins would abandon painting and pursue drawing for approximately the next 12 years. The first series of drawings she produced, which I call the “clipping drawings,” continued the theme of violence. Each of the clipping drawings is a trompe-l’oeil depiction of a printed photograph torn from a newspaper or book, the subject of which shows or suggests violence, affixed to a light gray ground. In Pistol, Plane, Hiroshima, Bikini, Zeppelin and Letter (all 1968), Celmins meticulously limns the tears and creases of the original clippings. These drawings reiterate the artist’s desideratum to treat the photograph as an object by rendering the physical support of the printed image. However, the clipping drawings demonstrate a different relationship to violence and energy than the artist’s WWII paintings. Rather than a vitiation of subject matter through an equilibration of facture and image, the vitiation obtains through a play of scales and mediations. The clipping drawings use trompe l’oeil unconventionally in order to set illusionism at a distance from the viewer, thereby reasserting the photograph as object rather than image. In Bikini (fig. 9), which is based on a photograph of a nuclear bomb test (specifically the Baker test) on the Bikini atoll in 1946, the beach, the palm trees, the waves, the typography, the clipping’s torn bottom edge, its curled corners, the trompe-l’oeil shadows the clipping casts on its ground, the sharp fold that bisects the image, and of course the mushroom cloud are exquisitely rendered and extraordinarily small. Jarringly juxtaposing the picturesque with the sublime, a pristine tropical beach with nuclear annihilation, Bikini condenses, miniaturizes and distantiates disaster. It is a work that can only be seen from close up, but even at close range, we are still several steps removed, we are still left looking at a trompe-l’oeil drawing of a crumpled and torn printed photograph, cast haphazardly on the flatbed picture plane. The clipping drawings mark the beginning of Celmins’ investment in highly detailed image-making. Their lapidary quality is what draws us in, but their foreboding subject matter and grisaille tonality keep us out. By treating the image as an object, Celmins dissevers the image from the potential disaster it represents.
The disaster paintings and the clipping drawings express more than one kind of entropy, however. In addition to thermodynamic entropy, Celmins has added the notion of entropy used in information theory: the gradual degradation of a signal or message through repetition and circulation. The disaster paintings and the clipping drawings allude to specific things and events, and yet remain strangely silent about them at the same time. She substitutes for the manmade death of the atom bomb the “natural” death of entropy. Each potential source of information is subjected to increasing amounts of interference or “noise,” in information theory parlance: the fading and foxing of the original photograph or print, the reproduction of the photograph in ink in a book or newspaper, the tearing or cropping of said reproduction, the reproduction of the reproduction by the artist, and so on. The “information” provided by the clippings is old and furthermore decontextualized; thus, it has higher entropy than the newspaper that first published photos of the Baker test in 1946.
* * *
The degradation of meaning through repetition is further explored in one of Celmins’ few forays into sculpture, or perhaps more accurately, a provisional return to painting in the late 1970s. Made between 1977 and 1982, To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI (fig. 10) is a collection of 11 stones the artist found in the New Mexico desert, paired with 11 bronze casts thereof that the artist painted to resemble the original stone as much as possible. To most observers, the original and copy are nearly impossible to distinguish. Sometimes the copy can appear more matte, because oil paint on bronze does not reflect light in quite the same way the crystalized, mineralized surface of stone does. But shadowless museum lighting makes the task of telling the rocks apart especially difficult. And the work’s museum setting also rules out the easiest way of distinguishing a trompe-l’oeil artifact from reality – by the sense of touch.
To Fix the Image in Memory is underwhelming and subdued compared to most trompe-l’oeil art. It does not strive to violate the boundary between representation and reality in the spectacular fashion we associate with the genre. Accordingly, trompe l’oeil is usually celebrated or derided for its entertainment value and emphasis on verisimilitude over and above more serious themes. While trompe l’oeil generally depicts lowly, relatively flat, still-life objects, which are better suited to fool the viewer into thinking they are really there, on the wall, Celmins’ rocks seem banal even for still life. They are not particularly beautiful, nor are they polished, nor do they rise to the level of a geode, let alone a gem; they resemble various kinds of metamorphic rock. By contrast, in Pliny the Elder’s legendary competition between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius, Zeuxis painted grapes that fooled real birds into pecking at them, while Parrhasius painted a curtain that fooled Zeuxis into thinking Parrhasius’ actual painting lay behind it. Thus, Zeuxis could only deceive nature, while Parrhasius could deceive not only man but more importantly another painter, the savviest kind of viewer. The Zeuxis-Parrhasius myth underscores the importance of theatricality to the genre of trompe l’oeil. This can be seen in the use of curtains or various framing devices, which call attention to the literal and figurative boundaries of the work of art. Indeed, trompe l’oeil could be said to be an art of frames and framing. One reason why Zeuxis may have been fooled by Parrhasius has less to do with the fact that Parrhasius’ curtains were more illusionistic and more to do with how the curtains defied Zeuxis’ expectations about what art should look like.
Instead of Pliny the Elder, however, Celmins cites Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Funes, the Memorious,” as the inspiration for To Fix the Image in Memory. “Funes, the Memorious” tells the story of a man named Ireneo Funes, who after having been thrown from a horse acquires extraordinary powers of memory and perception. “We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on a table,” says the narrator, while “Funes saw all the shoots, clusters, and grapes of the vine”:
[Funes] remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. These recollections were not simple; each visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, etc. He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day.
Yet, despite his limitless capacity to apprehend and remember detail, Funes was “almost incapable of general, platonic ideas”: It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front). His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him on every occasion. Since Funes could not countenance broad categories of thought, he could not reason abstractly. The narrator postulates, “To think is to forget, to generalize, to abstract.” And “Without effort [Funes] had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought.” Celmins’ concern that viewers see only the image rather than the painting or drawing of the image is the converse of Funes’ dilemma. Funes would never see the subject matter, whether it be a plane, a fan, or a zeppelin, because a plane at 3:14 would never be same as a plane at 3:15.
Celmins says people used to ask her about To Fix the Image in Memory, “How’d you find two rocks the same?” The question implicitly acknowledges a failure of the trompe-l’oeil effect. For a trompe l’oeil that fails to be recognized as such defeats the genre’s purpose, which is to deceive and then undeceive the viewer, and thus call attention to the brief but vertiginous switching of reality and representation. Jean Baudrillard characterizes trompe l’oeil as contributing to “the effect of loss, a sense of losing hold on the real through the very excess of appearances.” The question “How’d you find two rocks the same?” means that the ruse was too successful. The viewer cannot appreciate the discrepancy between art and illusion, and even when disabused of the notion that the rocks are the same, it is for the most part too difficult to discern the real from the fake.
Celmins explains that the title of the work arose from the problem of making it: “When I was looking at the rock and painting the bronze,” she says, “I had to remember what it is I saw even though it was only five inches away. And it was like building a sort of memory.” Celmins’ description of her process also accounts for our experience of viewing the work. In order to distinguish each pair of rocks, we have to be like Celmins and retain a memory of minute, meaningless details – a striation, an indentation, an irregular edge, an amorphous polygon of mineral – as our eyes move back and forth between rock and facsimile. Celmins likely has no or very few recollections of painting individual marks and tones. She likely remembered a particular detail long enough to execute it in her short-term memory, but not long enough for it to be stored in her long-term memory, à la Funes. Making the bronze facsimiles was technically and mentally strenuous because human memory and perception, as scientists and experience have shown, favors schemes, patterns and generalities over particularities. We remember a book, but not every word of it. Celmins’ art constantly frustrates our ability to generalize, or, put another way, it indulges our ability to generalize all too readily – “How’d you find two rocks the same?” One could say that her art capitalizes on the mind’s inability to adequately synthesize what is being seen.
Undoubtedly, Funes would be more exacting in his descriptions of Celmins’ work. As the narrator of “Funes, the Memorious” tells us, “A circumference on a blackboard, a rectangular triangle, a rhomb, are forms which we can fully intuit; the same held true with Ireneo for the tempestuous mane of a stallion, a herd of cattle in a pass, the ever-changing flame or the innumerable ash, the many faces of a dead man during the course of a protracted wake. He could perceive I do not know how many stars in the sky.” Celmins’ art and its attention to detail demands a Funesian kind of viewer, one who does not see generalities, but only specificities. Save for those with savant syndrome, this is a tall order, even for the narrator of “Funes, the Memorious,” who cannot reproduce Ireneo’s percipience directly and must only allude to it. The structuring irony of Borges’ story is that the narrator uses vague predicates to describe the mind of someone who has no need for and/or is unable to formulate them. This irony is a feature of Borges’ myriad stories concerning the very small, the very large and the infinite, and it is something that the viewer of Celmins’ art must contend with. Celmins polarizes the specific and the general, and the quantitative and the qualitative, to such an extreme that perception and cognition are cloven from one another. A further irony, then, is that To Fix the Image in Memory does not live up to its title. The replication of the stones increases their information-theoretic entropy, making them less distinct and thus less memorable.
Yet, this thwarting of meaning entails a temporal stalling as well, one for which Funes supplies a model. Because Funes is incapable of forgetting and is capable of perceiving and remembering everything, he exists in a distended present: a present that became “almost intolerable it was so rich and bright.” (In fact, the world is so stimulating to him, so full of detail and change that he spends all of his time sequestered in his dark bedroom in order to shut out its pullulations.) It is for this reason (among others) that Funes would make for a terrible scientist. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have argued, the history of scientific objectivity is riven by the dueling priorities of a fidelity to nature in its endless variety and a need to produce “working images” or types that extrapolate pattern from nature. Were Funes a scientist, there could be no such thing as taxonomy, as every single life form would not only be different from each other but different from itself at different times.As both the narrator claims and modern neuroscience substantiates, “The truth is that we all live by leaving behind.” If we did not, the present would overwhelm with its diversity, kaleidoscopically multiplying itself into a bad infinity of greater and greater detail. This is the present in which To Fix the Image in Memory suspends the viewer, paradoxically both static and protean, infinitely varied and fundamentally unchanging, where the exhaustibility of human apperception confronts the inexhaustibility of the world. This same experience of time, an infinitesimal cut into reality, a knife that never stops slicing through the “multiform world” of which “[Funes] was the solitary and lucid spectator,” a world “almost intolerably exact,” is the subject of the final series of works to be discussed: the night skies and ocean surfaces.
* * *
Celmins’ many paintings, prints and drawings based on astronomical photographs of the night sky are all different from one another: some are filled with hundreds if not thousands of tiny stars, others are sparser, some are blurrier and others sharper, and still others are painted so realistically that the artist has captured the fading and discoloration of the original photographs, like the foxing in the WWII paintings. (Of course, someone like Funes would not use vague predicates like “sparse,” but could tell you precisely how many stars, their colors, their positions in each canvas and how their appearance changes over time.) The aforementioned clipping drawings were a short-lived exercise, but Celmins’ dedication to drawing and printmaking were not. She next began work on ocean surfaces and night skies, two motifs that continue to preoccupy her almost 50 years later. In an interview with Robert Gober, Gober remarks about Celmins’ depictions of night skies and seascapes that he does not think of them as “‘images’ of the ocean, or ‘images’ of stars.” To which Celmins responds:
No. The recognizable image is just one element to consider. The paintings seem more a record of my grappling with how to transform that image into a painting and make it alive. I mean, dead and alive, since in the end the paintings … the paint and the image packed tightly together. The surface is very closed and flat, but the feeling of the painting (I hope) is full and dense – like a chord of music.
Celmins’ response to Gober’s point is difficult to follow – as she says in the same interview, “Hard to talk about it.” Celmins makes her meaning clearer a little later on: “I think one of the things that people tend to look too much for in art is meaning. And they tend to project a meaning much faster than I would like them to. If I was a dictator, an art dictator, I would tie them up and say, ‘Here, look at this. And look at it again and look at it again.’ And then I might beat them too.” As irreverent as Celmins’ comments are, their combination of violence with immobility are pertinent. (This remark also vindicates this article’s emphasis on formal analysis.) The viewer must be still in order to appreciate the painting’s stillness. The problem with the photo-based work, which comprises the majority of the artist’s oeuvre, is that like any true modernist Celmins wants to equate form with content but the dumbly mimetic quality of the photograph makes it all too easy for the viewer to see through the form, specifically through the painting’s materiality and straight to the content. Elsewhere Celmins, speaking like a true materialist, says of her own work, “It’s not really an image. It’s a painting.” Much of the meaning of Celmins’ work can be located in the friction between these two terms.
What separates these works from their predecessors is that Celmins adopts an allover composition to equilibrate picture plane and picture surface in order to emphasize the image’s materiality. In fact, the artist was so fixated by this aesthetic desideratum that in two of the ocean drawings there is a barely visible, large white X embedded into the rippling surface (fig. 11). The reason for this, Celmins says, is that “The cross flattened the surface more and destroyed the pictorial quality of the ocean. I liked it because it slowed the viewer down. It also slowed me down.” The night skies, which marked the artist’s full-fledged return to painting in the 1980s, are even more obdurate. Each work is made up of hundreds of layers of paint, each of which in turn has been lightly sanded to create a smooth layer. When painting a layer of black, Celmins would cover an area where a star was meant to be with a bit of rubber and paint around it. Then she would remove the rubber and paint the star, bringing the lower level of paint up to be flush with the top most layer. Importantly – and I do not think this can be overstressed – Celmins’ night sky paintings do not consist of white dots on a black ground. Even before she began painting her star fields, she “drew” them with a mechanical eraser, removing a dark top layer of graphite to expose the white ground underneath. In yet other star drawings, she did the reverse: she “drew” with black around the white ground which then became the star. For whatever variation of the motif, Celmins substitutes material thickness for spatial depth. “If I wasn’t really working with color, how would I make the painting have emotional power?” the artist asks, “I thought. Not easy. So I started layering the painting so that it became what I sometimes think of as fat, instead of thin: it gets fat, dense, but not with brushstrokes.” Celmins’ language here recalls fat-over-lean rules in oil painting, and it would not be implausible to infer that the artist has painting’s unctuous substrate in mind here. More obviously, her comments on layering reiterate a notion repeated across her many interviews, the idea of “building” a painting, especially in reference to the night skies. To build a painting again implies a focus on materiality.
Because the skies and oceans, along with the desert and lunar surfaces, are devoid of a horizon line, they lack a non-arbitrary boundary – a boundary in other words that is not merely the product of cropping but rather a product of nature like the shape of the earth or the topography of a landscape. If the original photographs Celmins used were cropped differently, one would get a new composition, but also one that in an anti-Funesian sense looked largely the same. While the skies and oceans are taken from a larger whole, the surfeit of detail and deep even focus underscores how incomprehensible this totality in fact is. Viewed closely, one sees more stars; from far away, smaller, fainter stars disappear, yet we can take in the entire composition – but even here, the composition is still a fragment of a larger whole. No matter what position one takes, something is lost. Not only do the works refuse to address themselves to an upright, bipedal viewer, they are also scaled and composed in such a way that the ratio of figures to ground – stars to sky, craters to moon, rocks to earth, crests to troughs – is almost constant when seen from any distance. As one gets closer, the density of pictorial incident in the visual field largely stays the same, while the other, once-visible parts of the picture move to the periphery.
The allover-ness for which postwar American painting was famous generally obeys some larger, compositional organizing principle that makes the totality of work at least abstractly apprehensible. For instance, in Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, there is usually a “rhythm” of repeated, salient gestures and colors and a reticence of paint application around the edges that together keep the chaos under control. By contrast, Celmins’ carefully balanced, non-gestural, atomized compositions do not yield a self-contained totality. Detail proliferates in all directions, like sand poured on the floor. Her works are not in Jackson Pollock’s memorable formulation of his own work “energy and motion made visible.” She does not “activate” the entire surface; she enervates it, by bringing it to equilibrium. Achieving this equilibrium takes work and planning and it is the reason why she paints and repaints the night skies dozens of times. She wants a particular kind of surface tension. She remarks in a documentary, which shows her working on a night sky painting, that she decided not to depict the comet in the original photograph because “I can’t stand an event that exciting.” Here again, the artist strives for a maximum of tedium in her work. There are, however, a few night skies with comets, along with an ocean surface with a cresting whale (Sea Drawing with Whale, 1969), but generally the artist maintains a strict evenness of activity and detail across the picture surface. The ocean surfaces, for example, never depict crashing waves.
The sense of equilibrium is compounded in the night skies through their complex surface structure. From far away, they appear as they do in photographic reproduction, like a black ground stippled with white stars, or in the case of works like Night Sky #15 (2000–2001; fig. 12), like a realistically painted photograph (or is it some kind of nebular halation, or both?); but upon closer inspection, adjectives like black and white are shown to fall far short of describing the actual works in question. In one of the artist’s earliest and largest night sky paintings, Barrier (1985– 1986; fig. 13), the black registers as impenetrable and solid while the stars, perfect discs of varying opacity, in white, yellow, gray and many combinations thereof, appear to jump forward in space, as if they were floating in front of the painting. It is more processive than the later night sky paintings: Celmins refers to the stars of these earlier works as “little sirens.” And Barrier lives up to its title. Leo Steinberg once remarked, “in an age of space travel a pictorial semblance of an open void is just as inviting to imaginary penetration as the pictorial semblance of a receding landscape was formerly to a man on foot.” On the contrary, Barrier is a barrier. Celmins voids the boundless extent of interstellar space of any sense of depth.
The later night skies are smaller and quieter, yet they engender a similarly confusing, counterintuitive kind of illusionism. From a distance, one perceives the general proportion of stars to field; the closer one approaches, the number of visible stars begins to increase and the smaller and grayer stars appear. However, the closer one approaches, the flatter and more obviously painted the night skies become. Finally, at close range, one perceives a plane of adjacent multicolored spots. There is still some degree of recession produced by the fact that some stars are darker than others, but the smoothness of the paint surface forestalls any imaginative entrance into the picture space. The night skies are paradoxical because, on the one hand, they conjure the illusion of points of light floating in space, but on the other hand, they do so in the most rigorously materialist way. Celmins’ night sky paintings represent the vast emptiness of space as a plenum. Not the plenum of Aristotle or Descartes, but a plenum like a block of concrete, solid and dense, through and through. This petrification of the picture plane is most pronounced in the night skies that retain some of their original photographic discoloration. Looking at Night Sky #15 is like walking into a glass door. Instinctively one wants to maintain a distance that allows for the maximum amount of detail to be perceived; at the same time, given the fading and blurriness of the original photograph, the most minute details are constantly flickering in and out of the field of vision. The picture is still, yet variform. There is a desire to will it into focus, to bestill its almost-stillness, to overcome the materiality of the original photograph with its imperfections, and thus make it truly transparent. Night Sky #15 makes explicit the fundamental aesthetic problem at the heart of Celmins’ post-1969 work: the question of how to reconcile a fidelity to what the photograph shows with what the photograph is, and what a painting is made of. Each of these demands, I would argue, is equally valid in Celmins’ mind. The material specificity of painting cannot be subordinated to that of photography, and vice versa; nor can the materialities of painting and photography overwhelm the subject matter.
* * *
Although Celmins’ star-fields, deserts, rocks and oceans, among other subjects, are highly detailed and frequently based on scientific photographs, they are decidedly not factual. They do not purport to tell us anything about the world they represent so faithfully. In Kantian terms, they are not teleological. Save for very few exceptions, one will never be able to deduce anything about the ocean, the desert, or the cosmos from her work. She does not show us the weather, only clouds and waves devoid of any meaningful context. Nor can one learn the constellations from her night skies, nor that stars are enormous, flaming balls of gas. Paul de Man calls this kind of seeing without teleological judgment “material vision,” a purely aesthetic way of describing the world, disconnected from cognition and knowledge. The term arises in his analysis of Kant’s definition of the dynamical sublime in The Critique of Judgment, which Kant describes accordingly:
Therefore, when we call the sight of the starry sky sublime, we must not base our judgment upon any concepts of worlds that are inhabited by rational beings, and then [conceive of] bright dots that we see occupying the space above us as being these worlds’ suns, moved in orbits prescribed for them with great purposiveness; but we must base our judgment regarding it merely on how we see it, as a vast vault encompassing everything, and merely under this presentation may we posit the sublimity that a pure aesthetic judgment attributes to this object. In the same way, when we judge the sight of the ocean we must not do so on the basis of how we think it, enriched with all sorts of knowledge which we possess (but which are not contained in the direct intuition), e.g. as a vast realm of aquatic creatures, or as the great reservoir supplying the water for the vapors that impregnate the air with clouds for the benefit of the land, or again as an element that, while separating continents from one another, yet makes possible the greatest communications among them; for all such judgments will be teleological. Instead, we must be able to view the ocean as poets do, merely in terms of what manifests itself to the eye – e.g., if we observe it while it is calm, as a clear mirror bounded only by the sky; or, if it is turbulent, as being like an abyss threatening to engulf everything – and yet still able to the find it sublime.
What Kant means by “pure aesthetic judgment” is a judgment innocented of human knowledge and values. De Man interprets this passage idiosyncratically (to say the least): “The eye is its own agent and not the specular echo of the sun. The sea is called a mirror, not because it is supposed to reflect anything, but to stress a flatness devoid of any suggestion of depth.” On its surface, de Man’s reading of Kant is bizarre, if not nonsensical. Kant wrote “mirror” after all, and mirrors are indeed reflective; he did not write “dull flat plane.” But de Man’s clumsiness is the point. The ocean as a mirror or the sky as a vault are metaphors (clichés even), but for de Man they are metaphors that represent a world without teleological judgments, without the principles that organize empirical observations into facts and systems of knowledge. This is why it is wrong to think of material vision as a kind of literalism, for literalism implies facticity and a teleological relationship between sense and concept, matter and sign. Nor should material vision be understood as a revelation of the truth of nature; rather it is to see without any conception of truth, falsity or any other value one can think of. Yet in order to do so, one must still use language and metaphor – otherwise there could be no such thing as a “sublime” – but use it to disfigure the tropology that makes human comprehension comprehensible.
In an early interview, Celmins relates that when she was around twenty years old, she painted a reproduction of Giotto’s Lamentation (fig. 14) in the Scrovegni Chapel. It is how she describes Giotto’s fresco that connects her work to the idea of material vision: “The angels are all pushing on the sky, they have their hands out. I loved that painting. It was some kind of revelation for me. I got from it a sense of the tension between the plane and the image. It was almost as if the angels were pushing, not just against the sky, but against the surface of the painting.” The confidence with which Celmins says “the angels are all pushing on the sky” is striking. I think most people, myself included, would say that the angels are gesticulating in grief as they mourn the death of Christ. Even stranger, Celmins’ conjectures that the angels might be pushing against the fresco itself. For the artist, the sky is a table, a floor, a barrier, a painting to push against. In compositions as “empty” as the night skies, she set herself the challenge of rediscovering, and not losing hold of the materiality of the painting surface. Material vision is why, in other words, Celmins titled a painting of the void of interstellar space Barrier, and a 1983 drawing of the same subject Holding on to the Surface. Instead of, in Kant’s words, the “vast vault encompassing everything,” Celmins gives us the metaphor of Barrier, an aspirational and allegorical title that would set the tone for the night sky paintings to come.
The night skies proper are smaller and more subdued. Through their process of layering and smoothing, the stars are made consubstantial with the black cold emptiness of space. The consubstantiality of stars and sky is an obfuscating metaphor for the same reason that the “all-embracing vault” is: nature is not a building and the stars and the sky are not made of the same thing. In painting from photographs the way that she does, Celmins gives the lie to photographic transparency and affirms photographic materiality: photographs, after all, turn light into matter. In a different version of his essay on the Kantian sublime, de Man refers to material vision as a “stony gaze,” which one should not think of “as an address or an apostrophe”; but as how “The dynamics of the sublime mark the moment when the infinite is frozen into the materiality of stone, when no pathos, anxiety, or sympathy is conceivable … the moment of a-pathos, or apathy, as the complete loss of the symbolic.” It is difficult to think of a better description of Celmins’ oeuvre than “when the infinite is frozen into the materiality of stone.” (“Picking up photographs is like picking up rocks.”)
In a different vein, the question posed of To Fix the Image in Memory, “How’d you find two rocks the same?” also instantiates material vision. On the one hand, the question denies human agency in making the doppelganger, and on the other hand, it expresses skepticism that nature made two identical rocks. In either case, teleological judgment is suspended, and the rocks are cast into epistemological purgatory. The question implies that the rocks are neither natural nor manmade, and thus confront one with a bit of reality that cannot easily be assimilated to human understanding but that is nevertheless physically present. To Fix the Image in Memory demonstrates that mimesis is insufficient to achieve material vision, as that would only be more literalism; instead, the operation of mimesis itself must be cast in doubt, not in spite of its propensity for verisimilitude but because of it. Celmins shows the world, but does not say anything about it, nor does she represent it such a way that one could infer anything from it. Her material vision is what makes her work detailed but not informative.
None of this is to imply that Celmins’ art is sublime in a Kantian (or Burkean) sense. It does not come close. Her work entirely avoids the affectivity of the sublime; it is more perplexing and anticlimactic rather than terrifying or overwhelming. And it would be no exaggeration to say that the sublime and the Romantic movement are anathema to the artistic concerns of Celmins’ generation. As she puts it, “I also don’t have that kind of romantic thing, that Casper [sic] Friedrich tendency to project loneliness and romance onto nature; to contrast nature’s grandness with tiny, insignificant watchers. I like looking and describing, using the images to explore the process of making.” But the sublime, as an aesthetic category about the limits of human experience and the limits of language and representation to describe that experience, naturally proved alluring to post-structuralist thinkers precisely for the problems it posed for aesthetics rather than solved. As Frances Ferguson in her study of the sublime puts it, “Kant’s interest in nature as such registers the peculiarity that persons should see themselves as responding to intentionless and sensationless objects.”
The discourse of entropy in the 1960s gave certain artists a means of engaging with nature on less anthropomorphic, less Romantic terms. Entropy was the perfect figure for a material vision not because it entailed a teleological judgment about a teleological process, but because it is a process about the loss of difference between things, which in turn made it a suitable trope for the loss of the very difference that underpins language and understanding. What separates Celmins from her peers like Hans Haacke and Robert Smithson is not only her pursuit of these themes through traditional media but also what seems to be her ignorance of ideas of entropy and energy in artistic, let alone scientific, discourses. As should be obvious by now, Celmins never discusses entropy in any of her interviews, nor was she the prolific writer and theorist about art that many artists of her generation were. It’s possible that entropy may be the best metaphor for Celmins’ art, but whether her art is about entropy is a different and perhaps unanswerable question. And yet, uncannily, her work is no less rigorous than Smithson’s in its unrelenting pursuit of all things entropic, albeit with different means and ends. Smithson’s Yucatán Mirror Displacements (1969; fig. 15), for example, turn mimesis against itself through an ironic use of mirrors – that paragon of replication – which split the field of vision into two irreconcilable halves. For Smithson, binocular vision was too energetic and constructive, and breaking up vision was a means of enfeebling it, of making vision functional but useless, or “passive” rather than instrumental as Jennifer Roberts describes it, in order to register the landscape’s indifference to difference.
As real as entropy may be, it still must be figured, imagined and represented by the artist in the same way painting must approximate stillness rather than merely be still. Representing entropy is necessarily ironic. Creating a work of art introduces order into a system, reducing its entropy, and museums are institutions consecrated to entropy’s defeat. This is why Robert Smithson requested that the Spiral Jetty not be conserved in any way. Barring a few avant-garde exceptions, painting is always already still: it’s an inert object. Similarly, the universe is always already entropic, and it is incumbent upon the artist to give form to that entropy. This point was not lost on Smithson when he said, “My sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas – i.e., ‘printed matter’.” The materiality of language or representation must double the materiality of the world. Celmins figures entropy by trying to equilibrate a truth to materials with a truth to appearances. Any moment of material accumulation or application must be counteracted by a subordination of the material to the motif and vice versa. Ultimately, this is an impossible task, because painted matter and every other kind of matter are not the same thing and never will be. Entropy in Celmins’ work both figures the natural state of the world as well as modes of making and seeing.
Perhaps what has made Celmins so difficult for critics over the years is precisely this anti-logocentrism: she assiduously avoids anything about the visual world that might lend itself to linguistic description. Unlike Funes or Celmins, most of us rely on generalizations in order to make sense of the “insurpassable plenitude which is for us the definition of the real.” Celmins’ originality as an artist resides in her ability to strike her viewers dumb (“How’d you find two rocks the same?”). Neither broad categories like “sky,” “plane,” “gun,” nor the most fine-grained description can adequately account for the experience of looking at a Celmins: one either says nothing or gets lost in meaningless detail. It is difficult to find one’s footing in the representation, to determine what is important and what is not. There is no correct distance from which the whole can be apprehended. Perhaps the final object of Celmins’ enervation is the viewer of her work, who is left to reconcile its specificity with its generality – a task that is ultimately impossible, exhausting, yet nonetheless tantalizing.
* * *
At the risk of reading too much into an artist’s statement, I want to end with what I think is an instance of Celmins looking with material vision at the work of another artist:
I remember when I went to Europe in 1962 to look at some museums. I was turned on by the real presence of works that I’d only seen as reproductions. Especially Velázquez at the Prado in Madrid – seeing that kind of removed quality of his later paintings of Isabella and Philip IV. His paintings seemed to have just appeared, they seemed effortless … And then you go up close to see this brushwork that just seems to have collected there.
Rather than see Velázquez’s brushwork as the incontrovertible sign of his authorship, Celmins removes Velázquez’s paintings from the sphere of human agency altogether. “His paintings seemed to have just appeared” and the brushwork “just seems to have collected there.” Her idiosyncratic recollection of the baroque painter – one that matches her description of Giotto’s Lamentation in its strangeness – is a fantasy about a nonintentional work of art that is nonetheless meaningful. The fantasy of the nonintentional-yet-meaningful artwork is Celmins’ way of trying to bring the bad infinity of the world’s diversity under the umbrella of representation. She acknowledges the impossibility of this task when she expresses the wish, “My favorite thing would be to have a show, then take it down and paint it again. Then show it again, then take it down and paint it again just to readjust it a tiny bit. My wish would be to work on one painting for the rest of my life.” Celmins reworks her canvases so many times, because she must somehow undo or forestall not only our, but also her own propensity to see the subject matter, the category, the pattern, or in her words, “the image.”
About the author
HARRISON ADAMS is an assistant professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Tsinghua University, where he teaches art history. He works on the history of photography, modern and contemporary art, and the history of gender and sexuality. He has a forthcoming book on shame and intimacy in the photography Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, Nan Goldin and Sally Mann.
Photo Credits: 1–3, 7–9, 11–13 reproduced after Gary Garrels (ed.), Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory (exh. cat. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), New Haven and London, 2018), 27, 28, 30, 31, 37, 53, 92, 129, 153. — 4 © Detroit Institute of the Arts / Bridgeman Images. — 5 © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art / Artists Rights Society, New York / SIAE, Rome. — 6 © Art Institute of Chicago / Jasper Johns /Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. — 10 reproduced after Lane Relyea, Robert Gober, and Briony Fer (eds.), Vija Celmins, London 2004, 27. — 14 photo: © Raffaello Bencini / Bridgeman Images. — 15 reproduced after Eugenie Tsai, Robert Smithson, Berkeley 2004, 174.
© 2023 Harrison Adams, published by De Gruyter
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.