Matthew Marks Gallery, NYC
Reviewed by Donald Lindeman
A confusion about media is at the heart of Vija Celmins’ artmaking. In her new show at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, are paintings, prints and sculptures, but we soon learn that things are seldom what they seem in Celmins’ art. The paintings and prints are based on photographs made by her, and some of the sculptures are ‘real’ found objects, e.g. stones, writing tablets, that are juxtaposed to mind-boggling “doubles” crafted by the artist.
Celmins works mostly in grisaille, and the imagery by her in this show consists of stars of the night sky and ocean waves. These are initially po-faced portraits of phenomena in nature most of us consider familiar on a prima-facie basis. So, perception and representation are crucial to the conversation of and awareness in Celmins’ art rhetoric. Much of this goes back to, of course, Marcel Duchamp, and by way of New York, the likes of Jasper Johns. Duchamp famously said: “I took art out of the earth and onto the planet of aesthetics.” And Vija Celmins’ artworks are certainly denizens of Duchamp’s newly discovered planet.
We should note that the paradoxes in Celmins’ artworks include naturalistic representation with a nod toward abstraction, an abstraction that has characterized so much New York art. Her “field of stars” might just as well be white marks on a black ground, and so an oblique hommage to, say, Larry Poons. But then Celmins’ trail doubles back toward actuality, to the fact that her artworks are naturalist representations, to depictions of something we already know about.
Celmins’ reproductions of stones as indiscernables are especially potent reminders of the existential actualities and indeterminacies that are pursued by her. The result is utterly perfect, and we’re left wondering how she might take her tribute to representational art even further. In this regard, I’m reminded of critic Thierry de Duve’s observation that, after Duchamp, the word “beauty” in Kant’s Third Critique should be replaced by “art.”
Celmins’ artworks are not merely didactic of an idea or method. Instead, they are undeniably engaging. Her “black paintings” of the night sky with their white stars practically “glow” from across the gallery room with a sumptuous pitch that could well have made Kazimir Malevich envious. But Celmins’ sense of the uncanny, of the nearly unassuming in her representational art, becomes for us a subject of wonder and contemplation. In her artwork’s own modest way, they take their place in the “universe” too, announcing yet another layer of ironic and miraculous replication.
Sources: Duchamp on “Planet of Aesthetics” quote, found in Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, by Pierre Cabanne, translated from the French by Ron Padgett, Da Capo Press, 1971, p48, as found in “The Ambiguities of an Aesthetic Revolution,” by Steven Goldsmith, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 42 (2): 197-208 (1983); and, Immanuel Kant’s Third Critique, ie Kritik der Urteilskraft, also known as the Critique of Judgment, 1790, and Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp, MIT Press, 1996
Donald Lindeman Majored in Art History at Colgate University, BA, 1974, and earned his MA in Art History, Columbia University, New York, 1976. From1993 to 2007, he was indexer and then Assistant Editor at Art Index, H.W. Wilson Co (metadata since sold to EBSCO). His MA thesis was “The Art of Paul Kleein Transition: 1918-1925.”