The 1960s was a noisy decade. The volume got turned way up, requiring earplugs for the head and for the heart.
Bombs fell, bullets flew. Social unrest blared. So did music. Postwar babies boomed into a raucous youth movement. Culture popped.
Amid this loud and blustering torrent, Vija Celmins fell silent. Deeply, profoundly, gorgeously silent. In the beautiful retrospective of her paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints that opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, silence is what is most dramatically heard. It’s a mesmerizing sound.
Celmins set aside the thrice-removed agitation of the Abstract Expressionist paintings of her student days, first at the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, then in graduate school at UCLA. She began to paint smaller, figurative, gray-on-gray canvases, which depicted in increasingly meticulous terms certain carefully chosen objects in her studio. A double-goosenecked lamp. A space heater. A hot plate. An electric fan.
These domestic appliances, individually isolated against a flat field of gray space, had something in common. The noble function of each was to beneficently alter its surrounding atmosphere. If a hint of color invaded the paintings’ cool grayness, it was but a radiant glow of heat or pale light, silently disturbing an otherwise steely environment.
Today, from a retrospective vantage point 29 years later, these canvases announce the arrival of an astonishing painter. Appropriately enough for such an usually distinctive voice, it was a painter who eventually spent perhaps twice as many subsequent years making drawings as making paintings.
The finality with which our common prejudice against drawing--as inevitably inferior to painting--gets blasted to smithereens is among the many wondrous revelations of the retrospective.
It’s not that the material differences between oil paint laid down on canvas and graphite laid down on paper are insignificant. On the contrary, they’re crucial. When Celmins draws, she carefully prepares the sheet with a ground of snow-white acrylic, in order to make the surface more receptive to the subtle movements of silvery black graphite across the page.
The basic mark of a pencil, made countless times a day by countless people, is here placed on a kind of aesthetic pedestal. The self-consciousness of artistic process is privileged. Celmins’ palpably concentrated focus acts as a gently rigorous guide for viewers. It humbly assumes a moral grandeur.
Celmins’ transitional paintings of studio appliances date from 1964. (So do two paintings that each show an outstretched hand holding a gun, the moment after it has been fired; a pale wisp of smoke is the only trace of the instantly vanished bang! ) In 1965, she began to make objects with a more pronounced Surrealist aura: several painted puzzles and some small houses, the latter decorated with images redolent of Rene Magritte and lined with fur, in homage to the famous teacup by Meret Oppenheim.
Next came a group of grisaille paintings of World War II fighter planes, which signal the start of her mature work. (She was almost 28.) Each silvery painting is little more than a foot high and 2 feet wide, and each shows a single airplane flying, poised on the ground, burning after a runway crash or even coming apart in mid-flight.
Plainly based on black-and-white photographs (and preceded by a 1964 “studio appliance” painting of a TV, shown broadcasting the disaster image of an exploding airplane), these figurative images make a wryly contradictory joke of a then-raging battle over abstract art. Abstraction was claimed by many to be far superior to illusionistic representation because it was truthful to the flat reality of the picture plane. So, Celmins had her cake and ate it too: She painted illusionistically faithful “picture planes.”
The airplane pictures are also mnemonic, nudging to the surface memories both personal and public. Like a series of hitherto locked doors concealing chambers within chambers, Celmins’ unassuming paintings open up miraculously.
Born in 1938, Celmins had fled the advancing war in Europe as a child, first from Latvia and then from Germany. Her images of old-fashioned war machines have a distinctly autobiographical edge.
Formally, they also put you in mind of their absent referents, by acutely describing the photographs on which they’re based. In turn, those unseen photographs recall the actual airplanes that once flew before the camera’s lens.
The tumultuous history of Modernist art is likewise inserted into the stew, by way of the savvy “picture plane” art-joke. So, together, social and cultural space, time and memory unfold.
Significantly, the visual silence in Celmins’ early work is set against an endemic imagery of violence. Guns shoot, houses burn, war planes explode. An antique car stands askew, pierced with bullet holes. A burning man flees a car wreck. The Aug. 20, 1965, cover of Time magazine shows scenes of riots in Los Angeles (a rarely seen painting, pointedly added only for the MOCA stop on the retrospective’s national tour).
The violence, though, is not sensational, perhaps because Celmins always records the moments immediately after a cataclysmic event. The helplessly silent aftermath is filled up with a level of particularized anxiety, as the space of memory is pressed. How did this horror happen?
One of the surprises of the show is a simple revelation of chronology. In 1966-67, Celmins made four painted sculptures: three Pink Pearl erasers and one pencil, meticulously crafted of painted balsa wood and giganticized. (The two trompe l’oeil erasers in the show are each 1 1/2 feet long, the fat pencil nearly 3 feet long). In keeping with her investigations of the silent space of memory, all are shown as having been well used: The eraser edges are worn, the pencil is a stub.
Yet, paradoxically, this sculptural valorization of the rudimentary tools of drawing actually precedes the earliest drawing in the show. It’s as if these objects were made to slowly and deliberately shift the artist’s focus away from painting and toward the medium that would dominate her work for the next 15 years.
The few sculptural objects that periodically crop up in Celmins’ career always occupy an ambivalent relationship to her abundant two-dimensional work. She made a 6-foot-5-inch tortoise shell comb in 1969-70, borrowing the image from Magritte’s famous painting “Personal Values.” As a mundane object for personal grooming, the comb hilariously brings to life the extreme degree to which “neatness counts” in the artist’s own meticulous endeavor.
Between 1977 and 1982, she made 11 small, painted bronze replicas, exact in every detail, of ordinary stones. They followed more than a decade devoted to exquisite drawings of the surface of the sea, the moon, the night sky and the desert.
The sculptures talk to the drawings. Nearby at MOCA hangs a rendering that juxtaposes a pebbled desert surface and a velvety black sky dotted with stars. Looking back at the real rocks paired with their painted bronze imitations, the delicately patterned surfaces suddenly seem to be expansive renditions of the Milky Way, collapsed into desert stones.
In her drawings--and, since her 1986 return to painting, in her canvases--Celmins fuses the surface of the perceivable world with the surface of a piece of paper or cloth. The result is a conceptual space of quiet tension and peculiar vastness, in which surface membranes are an ideal vehicle for journeys into profound depth and the camel passes effortlessly through the needle’s eye.
* Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Feb. 6.