People tend to wax poetic when they talk about Vija Celmins’s art. Since the mid 1960s, her quietly intense photo-realist drawings and paintings have been inspiring deep thoughts about big issues like eternity and mortality, silence and solitude, displacement and loss. And yet, while her art invokes the splendor of nature—her subjects include starry night skies, the broken surfaces of deserts, oceans, and the moon, the fragile tracery of spiderwebs—Celmins never loses her own head. Her pictures, meticulously copied from snapshots and photographs reproduced in magazines, are cool, detached, and unsentimental. She’s an artist in love with her materials, transfixed by the processes of looking and transcribing. “You may think they came from lying under the stars,” she once said to Chuck Close, talking about her graphite drawings of galaxies, “for me, they came out of loving the blackness of the pencil.”
In this spare, elegant show of eight easel-size paintings and six prints, Celmins continues to explore her favorite subjects with a perfect balance of rigor and humility. The paintings are small and very dense, built up to a waxy thickness in the center and thinning out at the edges to reveal the raw linen support. Some of the night sky paintings are purplish black and crowded with tiny white and gray dots; others are finished with a milky glaze that suggests a luminous, celestial fog.
At the risk of waxing poetic myself, I will say that Celmins’s pictures both embody and encourage a feeling of wonder. In her near-monochrome paintings of spiderwebs, this feeling extends to the ephemeral, site-specific works of arachnid artists who, motivated by instinct and tolerant of imperfection, quietly go about their business and leave the poeticizing to us.