Artist Talk – Vija Celmins at the Menil

Sea Surface by Vija Celmins

I thoroughly enjoyed Vija Celmin’s artist talk at the Menil last Friday. Celmins was joined by Menil curators Franklin Sirmans and Michelle White to lead a discussion about the latest exhibit at the Menil: Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964-66. I would have wanted to write about it earlier, while it was still fresh on my mind, but my sister was in the throes of labor and I couldn’t concentrate on anything but Gracie Raine. But now the baby is out and healthy, so Vija Celmins is what I’m returning to.

And she is quite something. She must be 70ish according to my math and still razor sharp. I loved her mumblings about the Cool School and California and being a young, ambitious artist. Her work at the Menil (done in the 1960’s) isn’t nearly as interesting as she is. In fact, she had a hard time talking about it without saying “I rejected that” over and over. I love that about her.

Below are a few tidbits I wrote down during her talk (not direct quotes because I write pretty slow and remember very badly). However check out this interview for more discussion.

Burning Man by Vija Celmins (Early Work)

On Painting

I don’t like messages. Painting should develop out of focus / your hand / history. It is a subtle fingerprint, it’s not self-expressive. The paint itself is mysterious.

I like to make the paint a character. The physical paint, not the application. Not with strokes but with density.

I stopped because the brush was saying too much and went to pencils. I wanted to map the surface so that the surface and the image grew together. So there was a double reality. So that image and the thing gained something from each other.

I like painting because it doesn’t need electricity.

Cezanne really invented painting. He’s the one that said “It’s a painting! It’s a painting!”

Time Magazine By Vija Celmins (early work)

On Using Images

I went to images so that I didn’t have to compose. To work with the touch that is hidden.

I don’t see the photos as a “source.” It’s like a map that you redo in a cultural or artistic space. The image isn’t the source of anything. I basically re-describe something. It is a space defined by my own abilities.

I stopped because it was too illustrative.

I see = I paint. So that I get out of my head and get to the part of the self that’s a more primitive reaction — the joy of looking.

All good work is always abstract.

Untitled Web 2 Mezzotint by Vija Celmins

On Restraint

Restraint is profound and exciting. It lets something go dead or on the precipice of death. It can only be resurrected by close looking.

My work is a showdown going on under close watch. It holds back, is closed off–you have to work to find your relationship to it.

Grey is fantastic and malleable. It can be gold and green and blue.

On Being an Artist

There’s no message n the artist herself, only meanings that float around the artist. Sort of cultural projections that fill the art in.

It’s you, not some hip thing, that people are after in your art. It’s you that people want to see.

I only see individuals, I don’t see schools of art.

The main thing about being in LA is that I wasn’t a guy. There were also very few women to connect with in LA in the 60’s and 70’s.

Most of my work is formed by saying “no” to things and working from what is left. However, the work still has meaning beyond my rejection of it.

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