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ART : The Beauty of a Long Attention Span : Speed is not what Vija Celmins is about; she spends months on each of her paintings and drawings. The results are detailed, sensitive renderings of both objects and nature, the particulars of life

<i> Susan Morgan is an arts writer living in Los Angeles. </i>

“I used to miss Los Angeles a lot,” says artist Vija Celmins. It’s been 12 years since she left her studio on the southern edge of Venice Beach for a loft in downtown Manhattan.

Celmins returns to L.A. this week for next Sunday’s opening of a survey of nearly 30 years of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The show--curated by Judith Tannenbaum for the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Contemporary Art--has already been seen in Philadelphia, Seattle, Minneapolis and, most recently, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Celmins’ small, contemplative black-and-white paintings and drawings--visions of the sea, starry night skies, the moon’s terrain, used household appliances and second-hand images of war--are so exacting and particular, they winningly escape the confines of any categorical definition. Her work does not fall in with any movement or trend, and yet it manages to succeed by all the standards of painting--abstract, realist and formal. What is essential in Celmins’ work is essential to art itself: She is able to translate observation through the hand and produce a stunning visual record.

Celmins’ work has always taken a very long time to produce. She has spent a year working on a single drawing. Her sense of attention is palpable; sensing her exceptional ability to focus, we, too, slow down and look a little longer, a bit more carefully.

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During the 1960s, Celmins also made a number of three-dimensional objects--little houses, an enormous comb, oversized puzzles, a giant pencil and some rubber erasers convincingly conjured out of balsa wood. These objects appear in the exhibition catalogue’s checklist under the oddly simple heading: “Things.”

Celmins’ “things” aren’t weighted down with the earthbound concerns of ordinary sculpture. Her process has been to transform objects: working out of two dimensions into three (the 6 1/2-foot-tall, hand-painted comb is an homage to surrealist painter Rene Magritte; the image is borrowed from his painting “Personal Values”), from ephemeral memory into the actual present (the toys and houses are based on recollections of her own childhood) and from the mundane into the fantastic (the sharpened pencil worn down to a height of 4 1/2 feet, the erasers as large as rafts).

“The basic thing that I like about painting is that it is non-verbal,” says Celmins. “Observation is closer to thought than to words.”

Celmins’ work first began to gain public attention in the ‘70s, at a time when the California Light and Space artists--Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, James Turrell and Doug Wheeler--were defining and establishing an L.A. scene. With these artists, Celmins shared an interest in the desert landscape and its distinctive Southwestern light. Keen to observe nature both intimately and at a great distance, she went flying with Turrell and Wheeler and took piloting lessons herself.

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The environment, however, never became her material. Celmins remained committed to painting, and she was always a critically well-regarded, if somewhat renegade, artist.

While teaching for several semesters at CalArts, Celmins met strong, talented women artists from New York--Elizabeth Murray, Judy Pfaff, Barbara Kruger and Ellen Phelan. “Living in L.A., people are very isolated,” says Celmins. “New York was more of a community, and I could be in touch with more painters. So many people there look at art, I found it more hopeful.” In 1981, she moved to New York.

When Celmins and I meet to talk about her show, it is a dark November afternoon, and the New York weather has just snapped into winter. The street where Celmins lives runs like a narrow shadowy ridge down the eastern spine of lower Broadway; it is perhaps the last industrial-looking street in SoHo, an anachronistically empty block, free of boutiques, restaurants and the Saturday shopping throngs.

Celmins, a tall handsome woman with thick ginger-colored hair, stands by the kitchen stove. Waiting for the kettle to boil, she peers down into a nearly empty tin of black tea. “This tea is very wonderful, very special,” she declares in a most matter-of-fact way. “It’s called Marco Polo,” she explains while tapping the last remaining leaves into a teapot and pausing to savor both the potent name and its remarkable fragrance, an aromatic blend of Chinese and Japanese flowers. Celmins places the steeping pot and two straight-sided English porcelain mugs on a table set with a plate of persimmons and a bowl of dried cranberries--an unself-consciously arranged autumnal still life.

Meanwhile, all of Celmins’ activity in the kitchen has been carefully observed by Zeelie and Dexter. Zeelie is a Shiba-Inu, a sturdy little Japanese dog with the sharply curious face of a fox and a quizzical curl of a tail.

Dexter, a country cat whose originally well-defined kitten stripes have now fragmented into a gorgeous overall tortoise shell pattern of dots, was named for cool-cat jazz musician Dexter Gordon. When Celmins stops to speak briefly to Zeelie and Dexter, they regard her with some interest, and an unusual degree of self-possession. It’s a harmonious scene, amusingly populated by three amicable but very independent spirits.

The front room of Celmins’ loft is as cozy as a farmhouse. Bookshelves line the brick walls and the arranged volumes--art catalogues and monographs, birdwatching books and travel guides, stacks of British and American novels--appear to lean comfortably against one another. In one corner of the room, a sheepskin has been tossed across a couch giving it the look of a reader’s nest, a perfect place to disappear into a book for hours, possibly days at a time. On a nearby desk, there is a large semi-tropical plant recently brought indoors to escape the predicted hard frost. Large windows face out across the narrow street and provide a front-row view into the illuminated spaces of another 19th-Century loft building located directly opposite.

“When I think about Los Angeles, I think about the light, about the nature and the horizons,” says Celmins. “And I do still miss it.”

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Celmins first arrived in Los Angeles in 1962 to attend graduate school at UCLA. “I didn’t know a soul there,” she remembers. “My family was working class, they didn’t have very much money, so when I got a scholarship with enough money to live on, I went.”

Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1938, just before World War II, Celmins left there at the age of 5. As the Russian army steadily advanced westward, she moved with her parents and older sister to a refugee community in Germany. She was a high-spirited schoolgirl, often playing hooky to escape the rigid classroom atmosphere and explore the bombed-out ruins, probing the fresh debris for treasures.

“I generally think of my childhood as being full of excitement and magic, and terror, too--bombs, fires, fear, escape--very eventful,” said Celmins in a 1991 interview. “It wasn’t till I was 10 years old and living in the United States that I realized living with these images was not everyone’s experience.”

In 1948, Celmins’ family was relocated by the Church World Service and brought to the United States. For four months, they lived in a lower Park Avenue hotel in Manhattan, and Celmins continued looking for treasure. On a sidewalk outside a shop near Grammercy Park, she struck childhood gold: stacks of used comic books selling for 2 cents apiece.

“I showed them to my father and he bought some for me,” she remembers. “I couldn’t read them but how I loved them, loved them. I thought that comic books were one of the great things that came with living in America.” At the memory, Celmins’ amber eyes flicker with a vibrant sense of pleasure and mischief.

Later that same year, Celmins’ family moved again and settled permanently in Indiana. “It was very hard for my parents. They were in their 40s and didn’t speak English, but they were extremely hopeful about America. I didn’t know anything, I just went outside and played--I was a great player.”

She entered school in the fourth grade; still unable to speak or read English, Celmins sat in class drawing pictures. In the evening, she would draw more pictures and listen to the inscrutable sounds of American radio--"The Shadow,” “Burns and Allen” and “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” Until one day, claims Celmins, with a wry but ingenuous deadpan, the strange language became suddenly comprehensible.

“Sometimes I can’t believe that I grew up in Indiana in the ‘50s,” Celmins marvels. “I always felt very strange there, I suppose because I was foreign. But it really was quite wonderful--full of empty lots, drive-ins and quiet.” She continued drawing and painting through high school and into art school in Indianapolis. “When I reached art school, I was home-free--everyone was drawing and painting all day.”

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In 1961, Celmins received a scholarship to the Yale Summer School in Norfolk, Conn., and met other young, serious painters: Chuck Close, Brice Marden and David Novros. “It was an amazing time for me, a real eye-opener,” she says. “I met talented, competitive people and I realized that painting was something that I could do for my whole life.”

*

Enrolling as a graduate student in painting at UCLA, Celmins discovered that there were no work spaces provided for graduate painters; students worked independently throughout the city and instructors made studio visits. She rented a storefront in Venice, near the beach. “I had made some very big flamboyant paintings. My impulse was to quit trying to make the great de Kooning painting; I knew what I wasn’t going to do,” says Celmins.

“I came up with a lot of rules and tried to break them in my own way. I wanted to find a way of painting that would be more authentic to me.” In her Venice Boulevard studio, Celmins began to make the earliest work included in her current retrospective.

“I started all over, really looking at everything,” she says. For a series of life-size paintings, her subjects were all recently acquired second-hand household objects: a glowing space heater, an ominously red electric hot plate, a winsome gooseneck lamp and a black-and-white television set transmitting an aerial disaster. These early paintings, with their rigorously worked surfaces and startling single images, have an animated, impertinent quality.

“I focused so much on each one of those objects,” she says, “that they have an odd, surprising look. Usually, when objects are placed in a painting, they’re given some sort of context and the images lay back on the canvas. These objects, sitting there all alone, don’t even look like they belong in the paintings.”

As Celmins talks about her first years in Los Angeles and the paintings of domestic objects, she stops to pour some more tea. Looking at the finely crackled surface of the teacup, a web of fine lines spreading lightly over the porcelain smoothness, she is suddenly reminded of something.

“I also did a lot of paintings of cups,” she says. “The question is--what did I do with all those cups? I always threw a lot of stuff away. Once I was finished with an object, I was through with it. I never considered them as objects to keep, I was too busy chasing things in my work.”

Celmins continued to investigate painting, pursuing the ideas that surfaced in her work. At UCLA, she met other artists: Sculptor Tony Berlant was a fellow student, painter Richard Diebenkorn was teaching a popular course (“I never took his class but he was very supportive and I would visit him at his Ocean Park Studio. He was like classical music instead of rock ‘n’ roll”), and Robert Irwin, who was beginning to work on his perceptually based installations, was a visiting instructor.

“Bob Irwin never came to my studio, and that was fine with me,” says Celmins. “I’ve always loved painting--trying to activate that two-dimensional plane, building surfaces, using the image to make another kind of space. I also liked all the questioning, so I would meet with Bob Irwin in his office and we would argue about art and painting for hours.”

Celmins lived in the Venice Boulevard storefront for 13 years. “My beloved studio,” she still calls it. “I had so many painting adventures there.”

*

After making the object paintings, where the single images appear to topple out of the picture plane into the third dimension, Celmins made a series of actual three-dimensional objects. These objects, recalled from her childhood--puzzles, burning houses, a slightly soiled trio of Pink Pearl erasers--are at once familiar and beguilingly strange.

In another series of work, Celmins reached further back into the two-dimensional. Working from war-time images torn from books, she made paintings and drawings of military planes and bomb sites; her palette was purposefully limited to a range of the found photograph’s own mechanically reproduced grays and the edges of each clipping was carefully rendered to emphasize the image’s flatness. Celmins had also begun to take photographs, black-and-white snapshots of the ocean’s surface and the desert floor.

“I thought of the camera as something to use, to peek through,” she says. In 1969, Celmins had her first exhibition in Los Angeles, showing resolute graphite drawings, all-over images of oceans and the moon, at the former Riko Mizuno Gallery.

“Riko Mizuno was very important to artists in Los Angeles. She created an incredibly nurturing atmosphere. We would sit around in her kitchen, drinking sake, eating her delicious food, and always talking, talking,” says Celmins, keen to clearly define that particular in the Los Angeles art world. Over the next 10 years, Celmins continued to make drawings--of the desert, night skies, expansive horizons and the sea--images of infinite space distilled into the tense and integral relationship between graphite and paper.

“I wanted to purge myself of style,” she explains. “I had given up on color. I had given up on gestures and strokes. All I had left to work with was the image, so I had to use the image to create a different kind of space.”

As Celmins speaks, she begins to indicate a winding path with her index finger. “I think this retrospective really follows a course,” she says. “It’s the story of someone who has made up the story of painting by themselves, through their own eyes.”

*

Celmins returned to painting in 1977. Along the Rio Grande in Northern New Mexico, she had collected a group of rocks. At home, she put them in various arrangements and admired the galaxy patterns on their surfaces.

“I thought that casting them in bronze would put them into an art context,” says Celmins. She painted the fabricated stones with patterns identical to their natural twins. “Exhibiting the real stones with the bronzes created a challenge for people’s eyes,” she explains. “The piece was really about looking. Also, just holding the brush and describing the form with the strokes, brought me back to painting.”

Tea time has run into dinner hour and Celmins and I have not moved from the table back into her painting studio. “Do you want to look at the studio? There really isn’t anything to see,” she warns.

It is not an altogether fair warning. The room is very bright and spare. Clean brushes stand up in tin cans and a blank, stretched canvas--6-feet-by-6-feet, larger than most of Celmins’ work--leans against the wall. A miniature desert landscape lines the window ledges: a row of small cacti, a collection of rocks. More surprising than the room’s austerity is the unanticipated view offered out the back windows. Unobstructed by another building or even a street, there is an open vista to the east revealing lights shimmering on the Williamsburg Bridge and the tiniest suggestion of the river visible beneath.

In Celmins’ studio, there is a single painting on display. Set up on a wooden easel, it is small enough to carry home in my arms. It is a painting of the night sky, layer upon layer of black paint rigorously built up only to be pierced by tiny glimmering stars. There is one chair, for working, set up by the easel and another, a more comfortable one, set up a few feet away, for looking.

“What I am always really trying to paint is tension,” says Celmins. “Heaven knows, how many words I’ve made up after making these paintings. But the painting is the final evidence and the evidence is always open for questioning.”


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