Vija Celmins, “Untitled (Big Sea #1)” (1969), graphite on acrylic ground paper (all photos by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)

SAN FRANCISCO — As I walked through Vija Celmins’s retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA), I noticed how entranced the visitors were. This was initially surprising — Celmins’s subject matter is not exactly sexy: mostly subdued images of oceans, galaxies, deserts, and spiderwebs. At first, viewers seemed impressed by the sophisticated level of skill, by the incredible attention to detail that Celmins pays to the waves, stars, and pebbles in her graphite drawings and oil paintings. But then I think people were kept there, in front the artworks, for another reason altogether: because the images are powerfully personal and intimate, even if they are mysteriously deserted and distant.

Installation view of Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Over the course of her five-decade career, Celmins has obsessed over single subjects for decades at a time. Among the first was the Los Angeles ocean, though you wouldn’t guess the location based on the somber monochromatic palette. Her oceans are unusually gray and introspective. Each depicts the same stretch of sea by the Venice Beach piers, but conveys a different temperament, like portraits. Pressed up against a particular corner of the water, we begin to feel close to it, until we realize that the image is out of reach, receding and expanding in directions unknown. As Celmins herself has put it, her work “lies somewhere between distance and intimacy.”

Vija Celmins, “Untiled (Galaxy-Desert)” (1974), graphite on acrylic ground paper

In part, Celmins’s art is seductive because of its secretive nature — there is this sense that there is something always left unsaid and partially concealed. “When the secret is exposed we look away,” writes the poet Mary Ruefle. “When the secret is hidden we try to see it.” Celmins really makes us pause and try hard to make out this secret.

Vija Celmins, “Night Sky #9” (1994–96), oil on canvas

The title of the SFMOMA exhibition, To Fix the Image in Memory, is taken from one of Celmins’s many articulate quotes. For years, Celmins has been collecting and fixing the world around her, “redescribing” it, as she says, and holding it still in her images. She has traced this impulse to feelings of homesickness and a sense of “lost childhood.” Born in 1938 in Latvia, she lived in a refugee camp during World War II, after which her family moved to the United States. By the time Celmins was getting her MFA at the University of California, Los Angeles, she was recreating objects from her past, like toys, a pencil, and an eraser.

It is also around this time that she began using photographs as her source material. “The first time I used photographs was really because I had been away from my family and lonely,” she has said. “I had been going through bookstores finding war books and tearing out little clippings of airplanes, bombed-out places — nostalgic images.”

Vija Celmins, “Suspended Plane” (1966), oil on canvas

Celmins calls the photographs she uses her “old pets.” She is fond of these images, a number of which she took herself, capturing the freeway from her car or the grounds of the Arizona desert as she walked. She carries the photos around with her until they are creased with use, eventually storing them in an archive.

Vija Celmins, “Freeway” (1966), oil on canvas

Vija Celmins, “Untitled (Regular Desert)” (1973), graphite on acrylic ground on paper 

She has described photographs as “kind of dead” and seeks to reimbue them with a sense of life and place through her drawings and paintings. “[T]he photograph always remains sort of an image of somewhere else,” Celmins explains. That said, she likes working from photographs because of their remove: “distance creates an opportunity to view the work more slowly and to explore your relationship to it.”

Again, we come back to this contradiction, to this push-and-pull between the intimate and distant in her work. She takes images from the past to make them feel present, and yet part of them always feels absent. There is a secret held in the grasp of these very still images, keeping us searching.

Vija Celmins, “Web #1” (2000), oil on linen

In a catalogue essay for the exhibition, art historian Briony Fer aptly compares Celmins’s “brutal kind of introspection” to Elizabeth Bishop’s. Like Celmins, the poet looked at the world closely and at small parts at a time, observing each angle of a leaf and the intricate textures of the sky, described in one poem as “blue-white, a simple web, backing for feathery detail.” At times, Bishop shows that it is through looking at the world closely that we understand it. Other times, she reveals the strikingly opposite: even if we attempt to see it all, we can still remain estranged and confused. The same could be said of Celmins’s images.

A photo of Vija Celmins at the entrance to the exhibition at SFMOMA

The two women also share something else: a lack of a real sense of home, of not having settled in one place. “I’ve never felt particularly homeless, but, then, I’ve never felt particularly at home,” said Bishop, who moved between homes as a child and in adulthood felt somewhat restless, always thinking of elsewhere. “I guess that’s a pretty good description of a poet’s sense of home,” she added. Home, for Bishop, was at once portable and nonexistent; it was the place of the poet.

Bishop’s words come to mind when I read one of Celmins’s interviews, in which she defines Latvia as her “first home.” Her studio is another home, “because that’s where everything happens for me,” she explains. She then identifies with a quote from poet Czeslaw Milosz: “Imagination can fashion a homeland.” Celmins elaborates, “Where my dog is, that’s where home is — that’s not bad. That’s about as good as anything.” Home for Celmins and Bishop is imaginary and adaptable, and above all, is found in their art.

Their oscillating and attentive eye — which looks at the same subject dozens of times, from multiple perspectives — is, I think, partly owed to this experience of having moved and adjusted to many surroundings. Perhaps it has something to do with the knowledge that the world around you continues without you and perpetually shifts. Even when Celmins holds the world still, capturing it just for a moment, some part of it is already out of view.

Vija Celmins, “Untitled (Ocean with Cross #1)” (1971), graphite on acrylic ground on paper

Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 3rd Street, San Francisco) through March 31.

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Elisa Wouk Almino

Elisa Wouk Almino is a senior editor at Hyperallergic. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.