Vija Celmins painting not shown for 50 years goes up for auction

An early still life by Vija Celmins that has been hanging in its owners’ kitchen for almost 50 years will go up for auction in May at Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

“Untitled (Knife and Dish),” an oil on canvas from 1964, is a plain-looking painting of a knife balanced on a small white plate against a large brown background, rendered in a simple palette from a rather head-on perspective. Other deadpan works made by Celmins that year, during her time in Venice Beach, now belong to museums, including “Heater” (at the Whitney), “Gun with Hand #1” (at MOMA) and “Eggs” (at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego).

Celmins once described this body of work to painter Chuck Close as a break with the emotional maelstrom of Abstract Expressionism that influenced her early on: “I decided to go back to looking at something outside of myself. I was going back to what I thought was this basic, stupid painting…. I don’t embellish anymore, I don’t compose, and I don’t jazz up the color.”

The couple who own the knife-and-dish image, who decline to be identified, say they bought the painting in 1964 for less than $100 from the artist. The auction house, which is increasingly known for contemporary art offerings as well as design and furniture, will offer the work in May with an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions founder Peter Loughrey said another dealer tipped him off to the Celmins one day in early January. He made an appointment to see the owners the same day. “I had the painting in my hand with a signed [consignment] agreement an hour and a half later,” he said.


And yes, the painting shows a bit of its domestic history: Loughrey said it is now being cleaned to eliminate “some particulates and grease” on its surface, though he described the overall condition as “excellent.”

Previews for the May 19 auction begin May 6 in the LAMA showroom at 16145 Hart Street in Van Nuys, and run daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. More on the art and design sale, as it shapes up, will be online at


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