Born in Riga, Latvia, Vija Celmins, who immigrated to the U.S. as a child, began her career in California. As an art student at the University of California at Los Angeles in the 1960s, Celmins was part of California's vibrant pop art scene. It was a time of student protests against the Vietnam War, and some of her early drawings touch on the theme of war. She sketched newspaper clippings and photographs from World War Two, rendered so realistically that they hardly seem to be drawings.
Celmins later focused on natural scenes: the churning waves of the ocean, galaxies in a star-filled sky, intricate spider webs and close-up views of the desert floor. She says each work is a creation, despite its apparent realism. "These works are invented and artificially constructed," she explains. "The image is transformed. It is laid out on the paper. I would like you to have the feeling that the ocean, or the image that you see here, only exists here, and that it has been made here. And the real thing is that these are flat, very concentrated small pieces of paper."
The images on paper were painstakingly produced, sometimes over the course of a year.
Sixty-five works by Celmins are now on display on the campus of her alma mater, UCLA, in the Hammer Museum. The retrospective was organized by Jonas Storsve, curator of drawings at the Pompidou Center in Paris. "I think that her work is so unique, " Storsve says. "I think that the first time I really got acquainted with it was in the mid-1990s probably, and it is something that stayed really in my mind."
Storsve acquired a Celmins work for the Pompidou collection, and in 2000, began assembling the retrospective from public and private collections.
Storsve says the artist brings both an American and European sensibility to her creations. "She manages to put these two things together, the American artistic recent tradition that she is a part of, and then this European heritage."
Gary Garrels, chief curator at the Hammer Museum, calls Celmins a singular artist, not easily categorized. "It is also part...of the reason that her work has been slow in gaining recognition," Garrels observes, "because she didn't really fit within any grouping." Garrels says it was hard to pigeonhole her, to come up with a quick way to describe the work, or to focus on where it fit in. "It was always a little bit outside," he says.
Garrels believes that has changed, however, in part because Celmins' work has become popular with artists. Now, the curator says, her reputation is spreading in the museum world and among the general public.
The retrospective of Vija Celmins' drawings will be on display at the Hammer Museum through April 22.