Do You Sense the Layers? – Vija Celmins at The Matthew Marks Gallery

By Sam Sackeroff

What is found in a “found object”? That question, like many questions that have animated postwar American art, was first asked under very different circumstances. A remnant of the prewar European avant-garde, it was most memorably posed by the Surrealist poet and theorist André Breton in his 1937 autobiographical novel, L’Amour fou. Recalling a meandering walk that he had taken with the sculptor Alberto Giacometti through the Marché aux Puces flea market in Paris in the spring of 1934, Breton described how he came upon a large wooden spoon with a distinctive slipper-heel handle. Although otherwise unimpressive, this “found object,” or “objet trouvé,” seized Breton, who purchased it and brought it home, still wondering why it had had such an effect on him. After some time, he realized that his apparent interest in the spoon was only the most recent link in a much longer associative chain that led deep into his unconscious. In a convulsive moment of perception, he recognized that its slipper-heel called to mind a glass sculpture of a slipper that he had asked Giacometti to make for him months earlier but that the sculptor had never delivered. That sculpture was in turn linked to a half-formed phrase, “the Cinderella ashtray,” that had occurred to Breton in a waking dream earlier still. Together, that half-formed phrase and the undelivered sculpture made up yet another composite link that reached even further back, now to Breton’s erotic desire for the “lost object” as such. What had initially been a simple wooden spoon came to symbolize for Breton “a woman unique and unknown.”

Today, this kind of careening backward into personal desire will likely strike many as embarrassing. And yet, the category of the “found object” persists. Although no longer tied to the notion of the unconscious, the sense that everyday objects form a tissue between the obvious and the not so obvious is still with us and has underwritten decades of second looks and double takes. While we no longer feel able to answer with Breton’s confidence, the question — What is found in a “found object”? — remains a compelling one, and Vija Celmins has made a career by letting it linger.

Vija Celmins, Night Sky #26 (2016-17). Oil on canvas [150 x 137 cm] © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

In her current, compact, and stunning show at The Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, the question hangs in the room like a mist. Celmins’s first exhibition of new work in seven years, it introduces viewers to her most recent elaborations on longstanding themes. Visitors familiar with Celmins’s work will recognize the painstaking representations — or to use the artist’s preferred term, “re-descriptions” — of objects that she has picked up and kept over the years: marbled rocks pocketed on the banks of the Rio Grande, scientific photographs of deep space recovered from the libraries at Caltech, and snapshots of roiling waves taken by Celmins herself in the mid-60s on the Venice pier. In addition to these familiar subjects, visitors will also appreciate that heightening of mood that comes about when an artistic project, long in development, breaks through to a new level of confidence and clarity. Walking from one room to the next — each arranged with expert sparseness at the gallery’s 22nd Street location — the viewer’s pace will slow and their gaze will sharpen as they ask once again what, beyond the stones and stars, they are really seeing.

Celmins comes by the question honestly. Latvian-born, Celmins fled her native city of Riga for a refugee camp in southwest Germany in the early 1940s, escaping first Communist and then Nazi occupation before immigrating to the United States in 1948, where she settled in Indianapolis. After studying painting and printmaking in Indiana at the John Herron School of Art, Celmins was awarded a summer fellowship to study at Yale in 1961. There, under the influence of Jack Tworkov who had recently replaced Josef Albers as the school’s driving artistic force, she was exposed to the work of the Abstract Expressionists, who were themselves among the first American inheritors of Surrealism. Based in New York, painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were the beneficiaries of the surge of Surrealists who arrived in the city seeking refuge as war broke out across the continent.

However, the Abstract Expressionists’ inheritance of Surrealism was only partial, and began a process of depersonalization that would distinguish the American reception of Surrealism in general, and of the “found object” in particular, for decades to come. Hardened by the Depression, many of them found the sort of wayward, idiosyncratic passion that Breton celebrated to be dandyish and superficial. Impressed by Surrealism’s other aspects, they resolved to discipline that passion by exchanging their European predecessors’ interest in the individual unconscious of Freud for what they took to be a more sober and more quintessentially American interest in the collective unconscious of Jung. Although they would often access that collective unconscious somewhat contradictorily by way of personal, psychological regressions — as in the case of Jackson Pollock, for example, who struggled to capture the human condition by making mural-sized works in which the processes of the mind would take on form in the tangled skeins of paint that he threw down in his Springs, NY barn — those personal, psychological regressions were countered by another set of impersonal, cultural regressions.

Robert Motherwell, for instance, who was perhaps the most coherent of the Abstract Expressionists, criticized the excessive individualism of the Surrealists. They were, he explained dismissively, “romantic defenders of the individual ego.” In the short-lived but influential magazine Dyn, which was founded in Mexico City by the painter and philosopher Wolfgang Paalen, a former colleague of Breton’s whose inaugural editorial “Farewell au surréalisme” did much to set the magazine’s tone, Motherwell described his less individualistic alternative. Building on primitivist, anthropological interests that had been established in earlier issues of the magazine, most notably in the fraught “Amerindian Issue” published in 1941, Motherwell worked to shift the movement’s emphasis from mind to matter. In his 1942 essay “The Painter’s World,” he explained that “Painting is a medium in which the mind can actualize itself.” “The medium of painting is color and space,” he continued; painting is “the mind realizing itself in color and space.” As Robert Hobbs has argued, Motherwell’s description of painting as a “medium of thought” marked a fundamental transition within Abstract Expressionism, pushing the movement away from the psychic automatism that Pollock had retained, albeit in an altered form, from Surrealism, to what Motherwell elsewhere referred to as “plastic automatism.” Unlike psychic automatism, plastic automatism did not pretend to offer direct access to the unconscious, whether personal or collective. Instead, it limited itself to indirect access, filtering thought through an impersonal medium.

The process of depersonalization that the Abstract Expressionists had gotten underway in the 1940s and 1950s accelerated in the 1960s. After the enthusiasm for what remained of the more idiosyncratic elements of Surrealism peaked and waned, and as interest in the gestural paintings of Pollock gave way to a new enthusiasm for the more restrained color field paintings of Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland, a new generation of painters began exploring Surrealism’s late echoes. That led to what Scott Rothkopf has called “a qualified reemergence of surrealism.” By 1966 Artforum had published a special issue dedicated to Surrealism that featured on its cover a work by Ed Ruscha titled “Surrealism, Soaped and Scrubbed.” This would be the same time that Paul Thek was making elusive and impenetrable cast-from-life sculptures, which he would later describe as dealing in a sort of “social surrealism.”

Vija Celmins, Two Stones (1977/2014-2016). 1 found stone and 1 made stone: bronze and alkyd oil [6 x 20 x 14 cm] © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

It is at this point, when Surrealism had been thoroughly “soaped and scrubbed,” depersonalized by the transition from the psychological, prewar European context to the cultural, postwar American context, that Celmins arrived on the scene. Having moved to Los Angeles after her summer in New Haven, she began making works that took up Surrealism’s frayed but suggestive thread: small sculptures of doll houses with fur under the roofs, intense and tempered paintings of kitchenware cut into puzzle pieces, and, most strikingly, a six-foot-tall wood and enamel comb pulled, appropriately enough, straight from René Magritte’s painting Les valuers personelle (1952).

Announcing a functional link to Surrealism, these works led to a still subtler series of graphite drawings based on newspaper clippings, opened envelopes, and photographs. Based on “found objects” of a distinctly postwar sort, these later works continued the process of depersonalization described above, providing Celmins with subject matter that was, as she later explained, “outside” herself. Although these works were impersonal, they were also, needless to say, not without feeling. On the contrary, Celmins’s turn to found rather than invented images was, like Motherwell’s cultural turn some 20 years earlier, simply meant to distribute feeling through something sturdier. Moreover, as for Motherwell, so for Celmins that something sturdier was the artistic medium broadly conceived. As she has explained in numerous interviews, her works are meant to provoke what she describes as a two-staged process of seeing, first pulling the viewer in with the “emotion” that their subject matter evokes, and then pushing them out with the “rigor” that their painstaking method of making displays. Celmins discusses this two-staged seeing in terms of “layers.” “Layers create distance, and distance creates the opportunity to view the work more slowly and to explore your relationship to it,” she explained in a 1992 conversation with Sheena Wagstaff. A few years later, in an interview with Jeanne Silverthorne, Celmins again broached the subject of layers. Describing how one particular night sky work was made up of layer upon layer of paint conscientiously applied over many months, merging the limitless depth of its subject with the sheerness of its surface, she asked her interviewer, “Do you sense the layers?”

At Matthew Marks, you do indeed sense the layers. In Two Stones (1977/2014-2016), a work that continues a series that Celmins started in the mid-70’s, they come gradually into view. Two stones, one found one made, serves as something of a test case for how to approach Celmins’s practice. After an initial moment of similarity it is the difference between the two components that captivates. What had seemed to be the indifferent speckling of pink and grey mineral deposits are, after a time, revealed to be feathered strokes of paint laid patiently over bronze — a knowing layer of culture in place of an unknowing bit of nature.

Vija Celmins, A Painting in Six Parts (1986-87/2012-2016). Oil on canvas, six parts [Overall dimensions: 36 x 645 cm] © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

This type of seeing grows more complex in A Painting in Six Parts (1986-87/2012-2016). Done in oil on canvas, the paintings are not of the ocean per se but are, rather, each of a single dog-eared photograph of the ocean taken by Celmins in the mid-1960s. Moving from one component to the next you soon notice, on the surface of each work to the left of the waves, the same blurred passage recurring — an accident of the light held over from the original snap-shot.

Vija Celmins, A Painting in Six Parts (Detail) © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

At this point, the layers begin to gather and you realize that what you are seeing is not simply six paintings of one photograph after all. Rather, what you are seeing is six paintings of the photographic medium. That becomes clear when you begin moving back again, appreciating, beneath the shifting values of white, black, and grey, the range of unintended but still-resonant registers that photography can itself convey.

The layers continue to gather when you discover that, in addition to being made up of paintings of the medium of photography, the series is also — at the risk of being pedantic — made up of paintings of a single painting of the medium of photography. The earliest component of the series, the one farthest right in the installation shot included here, was made by Celmins in the mid-1980s and sold to an early collector at the close of the decade. Upon that collector’s death, the painting was returned to Celmins, having been left to her in the collector’s will. A “found object” twice removed, the painting served as the starting point for the rest of the series, a fact that, once realized, interposes still more distance between the viewer and the work’s ostensible subject — distance that is filled by the work’s real subject: the acute and demanding attention that is involved in Celmins’s way of working.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Ochre) (2016). Oil on canvas [46 x 33cm] © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

This line of thinking is encouraged in Untitled (Ochre) (2016). Like Night Sky #26 (2016-17), Untitled (Ochre) is a painting of a photograph that Celmins salvaged from the archives at Caltech. Here, the colder tones that one would expect from scientific images dissolve in a warm sepia blush. Again, as in Celmins’s other renderings of the night sky, depth here doesn’t so much give way to as merge with the work’s surface as, upon approaching the work, one subject matter is replaced by another. Moving nearer and then nearer still, the viewer’s interest begins to flatten and spread out as stars become strokes and the ochre glow illuminates the canvas ground.

Vija Celmins, Reverse Night Sky #1 (2014). Charcoal on acrylic ground on paper [36 x 44 cm] © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

The gathering of layers reaches a sort of peak in Reverse Night Sky #1 (2014). A drawing in charcoal on acrylic ground, the work takes as its starting point a Caltech photograph of space re-imagined in negative. Although it is difficult to make out in reproduction, the work also features on its lower right-hand corner, next to Celmins’s signature, an arrow pointing up drawn in pencil. Although this detail may have been left over from the studio, given the intricacy that Celmins insists on elsewhere, that seems like an optional concession. Reading the arrow as part of the work, it sets in motion yet another process of mediated layering. Calling to mind the first, preliminary measuring marks used by artists in the printmaking process, the arrow begins to push the work toward a kind of material speculation. With its hard lower edge and the bleed around the top, it starts to look like a drawing of a print of a painting of a photograph. After a moment, it somehow begins evoking the weight of a mezzotint copper plate, the suspension of flecked pigment in oil, the chemical cool of silver nitrate, and, finally, the quality of perception that appreciates these subtleties all at once. 

In other words, instead of reaching back into the unconscious, as was the case in Breton, affective pressure pushes out sideways as social customs, habits, and norms — the whole impersonal substrate that mediates our personal lives — become available for aesthetic reflection. As though she were considering the kind of elsewheres that had so transfixed earlier avant-gardes only to then forego them for being flimsier than advertised, Celmins reveals the promised depth of the pictured seas and skies to be there for the taking in our everyday reality — assuming that reality is one that we, by mimicking Celmins’s careful attention, have, in her words, “doubled.”

Vija Celmins, Blackboard Tableau #10 (2007-2015). 1 found tablet and 1 made tablet: wood, acrylic, alkyd oil, and pastel [24 x 32 x 29 cm] © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

That doubling of reality is learned, and in Blackboard Tableu #10 (2007-2015) we are encouraged to develop it in earnest. The most recent of the series on view, Celmins began making this body of work around 10 years ago, salvaging chalkboards and then fashioning her “re-descriptive” copies out of wood, acrylic, and pastel. As was the case with the painted bronze sculpture in Two Stones, the “re-descriptions” are meant to call attention not to the few obvious similarities but to the many not so obvious differences. Cracked and buckling slate edges are smoothed out and rounded, while leather bindings are given hard, chiseled corners not found in the original. As these details build up and accrue, the mind does not so much stray as straighten, turning to what kinds of attention might have been paid or unpaid at other times and places.

In that same 1995 interview where Celmins asked whether Jeanne Silverthorne could sense the layers, she also gave some indication of what she thought that sensing might accomplish. “My intention is to make a fat, full form,” she explained. “Between the tangible, flat canvas and the volume of all those things like memory, and actual three-dimensional space, and how we experience the world, is where the chance to build the form comes. It looks like a narrow space from outside, but once you get in there and start to work it gets bigger. And I expect a lot from that space.” It is safe to say that when Celmins’s first full-scale retrospective in over two decades opens next year at SFMoMA before heading east to the Breuer, those expectations will be met.

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