Vija Celmins - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 15, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    McKee Gallery, New York
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    New York, Mckee Gallery, Vija Celmins – New Paintings, March, 1992
    Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art University of Pennsylvania, Vija Celmins, November 6, 1992 - January 17, 1993, then traveled to Seattle, Henry Art Gallery University of Washington (March 31 - May 23, 1993), Minneapolis, Walker Art Center (June 8 – August 8, 1993), New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (September 17 – November 29, 1993), Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art (December 19, 1993 – February 6, 1994)
    London, Institute of Contemporary Art, Vija Celmins. Works 1964-96, November 1 – December 22, 1996, then traveled to Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofía (January 21 – March 24, 1997), Winterthur, Kunstmuseum Winterthur (April 19 – June 15, 1997), Frankfurt, Museum für Moderne Kunst (June 20 – September 28, 1997)
    Bremen, Neues Museum Weserburg, Terra Incognita, May – August 23, 1998

  • Literature

    Vija Celmins, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1992, p. 97 (illustrated)
    Vija Celmins, Works 1964-96, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1996, p. 89 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    "I like to work with impossible images, impossible because they are nonspecific, too big, spaces unbound. I make them specific by taking this vast thing and wrestling it into the painting."

    VIJA CELMINS, 1995

    By rejecting the traditional standards of composition—both abstract and representational—Vija Celmins has forged a brilliant career spanning half a century. Her first body of work, produced in the early 1960s, depicts household objects found in her Los Angeles studio and assisted her in developing her adept powers of observation and explorations into the phenomenon of seeing. By 1968 Celmins shifted her interest to the natural world, beginning with her expansive ocean drawings, and also adopting the desert floor and galaxies as her new subject matter. Celmins explains her relationship to nature by saying, “I don’t have that romantic thing, that Casper Friedrich tendency to project loneliness and romance onto nature; to contrast nature’s grandness with tiny, insignificant watchers. I like looking and describing, using images to explore the process of making.” (Vija Celmins,, ICA/Philadelphia, 1992, p. 19) By creating natural scenes entailing cosmic light and expansive space Celmins carefully separates herself from her contemporaries in both Europe and America. Her “sixties cosmology – as seen in images of the ocean, planets and galaxies, and rocky desert floor – reflects an interest in states of heightened perception, acute observation of nature, and awareness of one’s relationship to the physical environment.” (Vija Celmins,, ICA/Philadelphia, 1992, p. 18)

    Pulling source images from snapshots, newspaper clippings and magazines, Celmins strategically crops the images by placing wide strips of masking tape around the area she wishes to reproduce and interpret. In 1969, her fascination with astronomy was sparked by Soviet and American satellite space photographs. In order to find more source material, she collected astronomy books and magazines and subsequently visited the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Another characteristic of Celmins’ renowned graphite drawings is her noted lack of color, therefore focusing on the work’s monochromatic texture and graphic materiality. “What I know is that I didn’t wake up one day and say, I’m not going to use color. I slipped into it through drawing the photographs, which were black and white…I do believe I wanted a more somber note and I thought that color was extra, as if I were decorating something.” (“Interview, Chuck Close in conversation with Vija Celmins,” in Vija Celmins, London: Phaidon Press, 2010, p. 127)

    The 1980s marked a significant shift for the artist. Upon relocating to New York she also returned to painting. The artist explains this artistic decision: “I went back to painting because I wanted more form; I wanted the work to carry more weight…I think I’d taken that pencil lead as far as it could go. I think all the last drawings were really my wish to paint and I just hadn’t switched to the brush yet. They were as heavy as they could be with lead… There are more possibilities with painting because I have a feeling that somehow the form is just bigger just because there’s more laying. There are more shifts in the work. It just is a more complicated spatial experience.” (Vija Celmins,, ICA/Philadelphia, 1992, p. 22)

    The present lot, Night Sky #3, depicts a blackened night sky with dazzling white stars. By layering black and white paint, sanding the surface down and continuing to apply delicate layers of paint, Celmins allows the elements of the composition to develop in unison. She described the artistic process, observing that, “The white is not painted on the black: both the white and the black develop together. I layer them until they become what I call ‘fat,’ so they’re like marble.” (W. Bartman, Vija Celmins interviewed by Chuck Close, New York: A.R.T. Press, 1992, p. 54) This small and succinct work contains the intensity of the dark, deep, mysterious sky. The cosmos, along with the ocean and the desert, are elements of nature constantly in flux yet also unchanging and tranquil in their sense of permanence. Celmins isolates and gives form to the indefinite and the limitless of the nocturnal sky. The present lot is the perfect illustration of Celmins’ continuous quest for the artistic representation of unchanging durability and constant fluidity that is both external and internal. As Celmins remarked, “Everything else is moving. I think art ought to be still.” ( Vija Celmins: A Survey Exhibition, exh. cat., Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1979, p. 32)


Night Sky #3

oil on canvas, laid on wood panel
18 x 21 1/2 in. (45.7 x 54.6 cm.)
Signed and dated "Vija Celmins 1991" on the reverse.

$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for $2,405,000

Contact Specialist
Zach Miner
Head of Sale
+1 212 940 1256

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 May 2014 7PM