Art review: ‘Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964-1966’ at Los Angeles County Museum of Art


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Getting inside an artist’s head as she works her way through an essential pivot in her maturing work is an excellent motive for a museum exhibition.

The University of New Mexico Art Museum tried something along those lines in a traveling Eva Hesse show that was seen last fall at the UCLA Hammer Museum, although it didn’t quite succeed. The 19 semi-representational oil paintings from 1960 were more like postgraduate student work -- interesting enough, given Hesse’s subsequent achievement, but not even close to representing her art’s transformational unfolding later in the decade.


By contrast, ‘Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964-1966’ seems right on target. Almost as intensely focused as Celmins’ own famously precise, exquisitely crafted work, it looks at a leitmotif that in many ways is the polar opposite of her best known art.

Violence is the recurring subject, not the slow, ruminative quietude of her widely acclaimed paintings and drawings of the untroubled surface of the ocean, desert and far-off moon; stars in the night sky; or the fragile network of a spider’s web. These pictures instead show handguns being fired, World War II bombers, a bullet-riddled car, a man in flames and more.

Organized by Franklin Sirmans, curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the show is now on view, and Michelle White, curator at Houston’s Menil Collection, where it opened last fall, the exhibition assembles 12 modest-size paintings and two small painted sculptures, all made during a tumultuous period in American history. It coincides with her setting aside abstraction for representational painting in1964; the 1965 completion of her graduate education at UCLA; her move into a Venice studio as an independent artist; and her debut solo exhibition at West Hollywood’s David Stuart Galleries.

It also coincides with the devastating 1965 rebellion in Watts. The show opens with Celmins’ black-and-white painting of the Aug. 20 cover of Time magazine, with its banner ‘riot’ headline and trio of photographs documenting the insurrection in her adopted hometown. Small changes from the magazine signal her work’s rapidly evolving direction.

Celmins is pulling the plug on the subjective emotions of Expressionist art. Instead she shows other people’s agitation, perhaps partly inspired by Jasper Johns’ sober art. (A large 1962 Johns show at Everett Ellin Gallery coincided with her student move to L.A.) Burning buildings, an overturned car and fleeing looters are rendered more loosely than in the magazine’s photographs, but her brushwork is by no means painterly.

The only color in the original magazine cover -- a bright crimson logo and wide red border designed to generate graphic oomph on the newsstand -- has been drained away. Instead, ‘serious’ black and gray corresponds to the news photographs’ palette.

Celmins is painting mass-media’s hyped-up representation of a horribly violent event, but she is doing so in a manner that elevates contemplative dispassion. One result, given an absence of Expressionist exaggeration for emotional effect, is the bare beginning of a taut pictorial tension between the subject (a pictured riot) and the object (a painting).


She was working in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, while the brutal escalation of the Vietnam War and African American and feminist civil rights struggles were prominently featured in newspapers and on TV. She also turned to fierce personal history: Born in Latvia in 1938, she fled with her family during the Nazi occupation, eventually settling in Indianapolis after the war.

Some sense of that displacement registers in the painted 1965 sculptures. One is a child’s puzzle, the other a nominal doll house, its gray exterior painted with images of destruction. The home’s interior is disconcertingly lined with fur that recalls Meret Oppenheim’s Surrealist fur-lined teacup -- cozy yet erotic.

Everything crystallizes the next year, with masterful paintings of World War II airplanes in somber, Johnsian tones of gunmetal gray. The largest, ‘Suspended Plane,’ is less than 2 feet high and 3 feet wide. Based on a found photograph of an American B-17 bomber but altered in the number of visible engines, it contains a strange anomaly: The airplane is aloft, high in a hazy sky, but its propellers have stopped.

The plane is suspended in space. A ‘suspended plane,’ of course, is also a pretty good thumbnail description of a painting that hangs on a wall. In the 1960s wake of the 1950s Abstract Expressionist juggernaut, Celmins is redefining painting.

The implied tension between subject and object that bubbled up in the Time magazine painting now starts to hum with the precision of a tuning fork. Another painting, ‘Flying Fortress,’ presses on.

Here the anomaly is lodged in a disturbing illusion: The airplane’s tail section is breaking apart from the fuselage at 30,000 feet. Pure abstraction was the ‘flying fortress’ that protected the prerogatives of the institutional avant-garde; but what was touted by abstractionists as the primacy of the picture plane was coming apart at the seams by the 1960s. Celmins’ ‘picture plane’ uses the intersection between painting and photography with the precision of a strategic weapon, shooting down avant-garde art’s long-standing prohibition against representational imagery. The two-dimensional flatness of the picture, which abstraction was said to respect, also survived in a painting that records a photograph’s flat surface.

The war machinery and other grim violence depicted in these paintings arise from the times, as well as from the artist’s personal history. But Celmins is directing them toward art’s stultifying constraints and suffocating taboos. She pries open a space for contemplation, using art’s own power to advocate for what is inevitably excluded.

The exhibition comes with a handsome small catalog, which has a few factual glitches. Pasadena Art Museum curator Walter Hopps became director in 1963, not 1962, and the Campbell’s soup can paintings that Andy Warhol showed at La Cienega’s Ferus Gallery were not silk-screened.

More troublesome is its academic repetition of the mistaken assumption that Pop art functioned as a critique of popular culture. In fact, Pop used mass-media images and techniques to critique art culture -- just as Celmins’ marvelous airplane paintings so brilliantly demonstrate.

Still, this is a smart and satisfying exhibition. Like its tumultuous social era, Celmins’ breakthrough work turned existing conditions upside-down. ‘Television and Disaster’ shows how.

‘Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964-1966,’ Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. (323) 857-6000, through June 5. Closed Wednesdays.

[For the record: The headline in an earlier version of this review had the wrong years of the show’s title.]


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-- Christopher Knight