Vija Celmins (pronounced VEE-ya SELL-muns, TSEL-meench, in Latvian) was born on October 25, 1938, in Riga, Latvia. Upon the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940, her parents and older sister Inta fled to Germany, survived the refugee-despising Nazi regime, and then lived in a United Nations supported Latvian refugee camp in Esslingen am Neckar, Baden-Württemberg. After World War II, in 1948, the Church World Service relocated the family to the United States, briefly in New York City, then in Indianapolis, Indiana. Sponsored by a local Lutheran church, her father found work as a carpenter, and her mother in a hospital laundry. Vija was ten, and spoke no English, which caused her to focus on drawing, leading her teachers to encourage further creativity and painting.
In 1955, she entered the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, where she has said that for the first time in her life, she did not feel like an outsider. In 1961 she won a Fellowship to attend a Summer session at Yale University, where she met Chuck Close and Brice Marden, who would remain close friends. It was during this time she began to study Italian monotone still life painter Giorgio Morandi, and painted abstract works. In 1962 she graduated from Herron with a BFA, and moved to Venice, Los Angeles, to pursue an MFA at the University of California at Los Angeles, graduating in 1965. At UCLA, she enjoyed freedom, being far from her parents, leading to further artistic exploration. She lived in Venice until 1980, painting and sculpting, and working as an instructor at California State College, the University of California, Irvine and California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia.
In 1981, first drawn East by an invitation to teach at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, she moved permanently to New York City, wanting to be closer to the artists and art that she liked. She also returned to painting, which she had abandoned for twelve years, working during that time mainly in pencil. She later switched to using woodcuts, and then to eraser and charcoal, and added printmaking to her repertory. Since that time, she has worked out of a cottage in Sag Harbor, New York, and a studio loft on Crosby Street in Soho, Manhattan. During the 1980s, she also taught at Cooper Union and Yale School of Art.
Working in California in the 1960s, Vija Celmins' early work, generally in photorealistic painting and pop-inspired sculpture, was representational. She recreated commonplace objects such as TVs, lamps, pencils, erasers, and the painted monochrome reproductions of photographs. A common underlying theme in the paintings was violence or conflict, such as war planes, handguns and riot imagery. A retrospective of the 1964–1966 work was organized by the Menil Collection in cooperation with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010. She has cited Malcolm Morley and Jasper Johns as influences in this period.
In the late 1960s through the 1970s, she abandoned painting, and focused on working in graphite pencil, creating highly detailed photorealistic drawings, based on photographs of natural elements such as the ocean's or moon's surface, the insides of shells, and closeups of rocks. Critics frequently compare her laborious approach to contemporaries Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter, and she has cited Giorgio Morandi, a master of the pale grey still life, as a major influence. These works also share with Richter's an apparent randomness and thus apparently dispassionate attitude. It is as if any photograph would do as a source for a painting, and the choice is apparently unimportant. This is of course not the case, but the work contains within it the impression that the image is chosen at random from an endless selection of possible alternative images of similar nature.
At the end of this period, from 1976 to 1983, Celmins also returned to sculpture in a way that incorporated her interest in photorealism. She produced a series of bronze cast, acrylic painted stones, exact replicas of individual stones she found near her cottage in Sag Harbor, with eleven examples held at the MoMA (see photos). By 1981, she abandoned the pencil completely, and returned to painting, from this point forward working also with woodcuts and printing, and substantially in charcoal with a wide variety of erasers - often exploring negative space, selectively removing darkness from images, and achieving subtle control of grey tones.
From the early 1980s forward, Celmins focused on the constellations, moon and oceans using these various techniques, a balance between the abstract and photorealism. By 2000, she had begun to produce haunting and distinctive spider webs, again negative images in oil or charcoal, to much critical acclaim, with particular note of her meticulous surface development and luminosity. She has said that all these works are based on photographs, and she imparts substantial effort on the built-up surfaces of the images. In a 1996 review of her 30-year retrospective at London's Institute of Contemporary Art, The Independent cited her as "American art's best-kept secret."
Critics have often noted that Celmins' works since the late 1960s - the moon scapes, ocean surfaces, star fields, shells, and spider webs, often share the characteristic of not having a reference point: no horizon, depth of field, edge or landmarks to put them into context. The location, constellation, or scientific name are all unknown - there is no information imparted.
From 2008, Celmins returned to objects and representative work, with paintings of maps and books, as well as many uses of small graphite tablets - hand held black boards. She also produced series prints of her now well-known waves, spiderwebs, shells and desert floors, many of which were exhibited at the McKee Gallery in June 2010.
Celmins's works have been the subject of over forty solo exhibitions around the world since 1965, hundreds of group exhibitions. After her longtime dealer, McKee Gallery in New York, announced its closing in 2015, Celmins is currently represented by Matthew Marks Gallery.
Celmins's works are held in the collections of over twenty public museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Baltimore Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Art, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, High Museum of Art, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX, Museum of Modern Art, New York, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In 2005, a major collector of her work, real estate developer Edward R. Broida, donated 17 pieces, covering 40 years of her career, to the Museum of Modern Art, as part of an overall contribution valued at $50 million ($50,000,000). Especially noteworthy were the early and late paintings.1961 Fellowship to Yale University Summer Session
1968 Cassandra Foundation Award
1971 & 1976 Artist’s Fellowship from National Endowment for the Arts
1980 Guggenheim Fellowship
1996 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Art
1997 Skowhegan Medal for Painting
1997 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship
2000-2001 Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation Award
2004 Elected into the National Academy of Design
2006 RISD Athena Award for Excellence in Painting
2008 Awarded the $10,000 Carnegie Prize
2009 Roswitha Haftmann Prize
2009 Fellow Award in the Visual Arts from United States Artists