Vija Celmins

Continuing with the theme of expanse, we are introduced to a different way of drawing landscape with the work of Vija Celmins. She is best known for her highly detailed, monochromatic paintings and drawings of nature. She was born in Latvia in 1938, relocating to America in 1948 as a refugee from the second World War, her career spans six decades.

Her graphite drawings focus on natural elements, such as the ocean, the moon, spiders’ webs, the sky,  shells and close-ups of rocks.

Her night sky images are perhaps what she is known for best, these are pictures of huge, vast natural phenomena that is hard to capture and yet she does capture them, in painstaking detail. There is no focal point, or horizon or even perspective in some, but the detail of her work allows you to really examine it and get lost in it.

For many of her works, Celmins followed Ad Reinhardt’s 12 Rules for Painting, 1953, which dictates no form, no colour, no movement, no light, no colour etc.,  thus determining a ‘pure art’, where more is considered less. Celmins’ work epitomises these rules, the lack of horizon enables her to imagine that “I wrestle a giant image into a very tiny area and make it stay there so that it seems inevitable that it is there¹.”

I find her work a little difficult to explain well and I suspect that much of its significance comes from the process of making her work and why she makes the work. I know that she collected images from childhood, some of her early work of war images is probably a reworking of her early years when she was caught up in the Second World War. This use of found images was popular in Pop Art but she was more influenced by Magritte and Morandi than Warhol. The two dimensional aspect of her painting is important to her, labouring to capture a three dimensional living, moving object, into the two dimensional picture plane of a canvas. It’s important to note that her works are not drawn from the subjects directly but rather from found images, or newspaper clippings or photographs. This suggests a distance from the subject but the meticulous detail of her works suggests something closer, more intimate. I feel like there is a whole lot more to her work than just the microscopic detail of her drawings.

Her work lacks colour, probably originating from her source material of newspaper images which mostly came from black and white newspapers. After the war images, she also painted very severe objects like lamps, space heaters, etc, in an attempt to reject her earlier learning and progress her thinking about art, “I was trying to get back to some kind of a basic thing where I just look and paint, and sort of an old-fashioned kind of way of starting out³.”

Her work is intense, she is studying, examining and then recreating what she sees, in relentless detail. In her interviews she talks about capturing the essence of the subject, so that the subject matter and the image exist together at the same time, they become enmeshed and she wants the viewer to have that same experience of recreation. It creates an intimacy with the subject that you can’t get from the subject itself, e.g. the ocean is too big, constantly moving and splashing but in her pictures it is still so just for a second, if you could suspend it in time, that is what it would be.

The lack of horizon is also intentional, “I want to place the work in a wall, I don’t want to make a pictorial picture where you might imagine a horizon and what’s other the horizon. I want to keep you in that rectangle³.”


Whilst her galaxy pictures are about infinity, with no perspective, her cobweb series offer us a map of surface texture, inviting us to look up. They can also be considered as negative or eraser drawings where a black background is laid down with charcoal and erasers used to bring out the image from the original paper. There is no spider, shifting the importance onto the structure rather than the creator. I think this may be as personal as reference to herself as any; she does not seem to really enjoy talking about her work but she wants us to study her work, and interact with it.  She is as considered as her work.

In the video she discusses how she doesn’t think of it as drawing but more “using a pencil as my medium”. Later, when discussing her sculptured stones  To Fix the Image in Memory 1977–82, she says “the point is not to mimic but show a kind of attention span and a thoroughness of putting the paint down and looking at the found object and picking this tiny, tiny area, remembering it and putting it on another object which I had made.” Whilst her picture is still, with no obvious movement, a still life if you like, the natural object is moving, spinning and turning. She is redescribing and remembering a moment in time, capturing it forever.

Close up her pictures are like photographs, highly detailed and textured but from a distance they seem empty and lonely, there is no focal point or people, this feeling is emphasised by the lack of colour and use of greys. There is a real sense of space and time, of movement captured, achieved through the intricate, repeating patterns created throughout her structures.

I’ve read a lot about Celmins now and I’m still struggling to fully understand her approach, in her interviews she talks about her fondness for scientific images, such as the stars and galaxies because they are anonymous². She doesn’t give anything of herself away in these images, rather they are intense studies, almost microscopic in detail, which I would love to see close up. She examines photographs of her chosen subject matter, to “relive that image and put it in a human context, and I would like you to be able to scrutinise it and relive the making of it the way that I have been doing for a long time¹.”



  1. Kennedy, Randy, February 9, 2017, New York, the Artist Vija Celmins Conjures Sea and Sky with Brush, accessed 27 June 2017,
  2. Tate Shorts, April 4, 2014, Vija Celmins Artist Rooms, accessed 27 June, 2017,
  3. Sussler, Betty, 18 October 2011, New York, Interview with Vija Celmins, The Museum of Modern Art,, accessed 27 June 2017


Manchester, Elizabeth, 2005, Tate Website

Goertz, Ralph, 2011, Cologne, Vija Celmins Desert, Sea and Stars, Institut für Kunstdokumentation


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