Vija Celmins - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | Phillips

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  • "The first look at a wave should (maybe) (if only for a moment) be reminiscent of being in love—a feeling of Oh—of surprise, of senses waking up." 
    —Vija Celmins, 2013

    Painted between 1987 and 1988, Vija Celmins’ Untitled (Ocean) exemplifies the scrupulous, painterly virtuosity and perceptual richness of the artist’s highly acclaimed oeuvre. Only the second of its kind to ever arrive at auction, the work was created at a pivotal moment in Celmins’ career when she returned to painting after a 12-year engagement with drawing. Untitled (Ocean) depicts a painted, photo-realistic ocean surface with no horizon or shore in sight; a body at once ever in motion and fixed in stillness. The work was most recently featured in the artist’s first major retrospective in over 25 years, Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory at the Met Breuer from 2019 to 2020—a groundbreaking exhibition that positioned Celmins among the pantheon of influential post-war female artists receiving reconsideration within the broader art historical canon, such as Alice Neel, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler.


    The present work installed at Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, The Met Breuer, September 24, 2019 – January 14, 2020. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

    Seeing through a New Lens

    "There's an experience of only being inspired by the surface in the photograph.…I think I started to treat the camera as something to use, to peek through."
     —Vija Celmins

    For over 50 years, Celmins has relentlessly pursued the challenge of transcribing nature’s vast, mysterious expanses in pictorial form. Ocean surfaces, along with desert floors and night skies, have held a distinctive place in the artist’s oeuvre. In 1968, the artist’s Los Angeles studio was just seven blocks away from Venice Beach, where she began taking photographs of the Pacific Ocean at the end of a pier. Using her camera as a looking device, Celmins became less interested in representing a specific place and more inspired by how the photographic lens distilled the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional surface that renders an image in suspending reality.


    Redescribing the Photograph


    Gerhard Richter, Seestück (See-See), 1970. Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Image: bpk Bildagentur / Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen / Jörg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Gerhard Richter

    In ways that draw conceptual parallels with Gerhard Richter’s early practice, Celmins does not simply use photographs as source material. The photograph itself—rather than its representation—acts as her subject matter. In the same way that the camera lens captures what exists in reality, Celmins “redescribes” her photographs—a term she uses to refer to her process because, “[S]ome people think that I just sit down and copy the is precisely that I reinvent it in other terms.” i

    "I tend to do images over and over again because each one has a different tone, slant, a different relationship to the plane. And so, a different meaning."
     —Vija Celmins

    The artist’s working photographs of the Pacific Ocean from Venice Beach pier. Artwork: © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

    The Return to Painting

    "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."
    —Vija Celmins

    Celmins’ return to the medium of paint with the subject matter that had preoccupied her work in graphite and charcoal through the 1970s, was inextricably linked to her move to New York in the early 1980s—a shift that profoundly impacted the technical and conceptual direction of her practice. As Bob Nickas elucidates, “It is important to remember...although she has engaged with [the ocean] image since the late 1960s, initially in graphite on acrylic ground, she only produced her first ocean paintings in the mid-1980s, when she began to work again in oil on canvas. Until then, materially, the image could not have been thought of as liquid or wet.”ii  The artist explained of this shift, “I went back to painting because I wanted more form, I wanted the work to carry more weight. I have this feeling the work has more meaning when it is fuller and richer and has what I call ‘more form.’”iii


    The artist painting in her New York studio at 142 Wooster Street, ca. 1985. Artwork: © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

    "When I came to New York, the work became much more kind of intellectualized...more conceptual, and more…inward. And actually, those paintings were very closed off...without nature...the kind of paintings that are really studio paintings. They might reflect something interior of yourself." 
    —Vija Celmins

    In the present work, Celmins builds up her painted image of the ocean onto the surface of the canvas mark by mark, stroke by stroke, ultimately fusing medium and form, paint and image, into one. Her painterly practice and its conceptual impetus build from the influences of Paul Cézanne, Giorgio Morandi, and René Magritte—reminding us that, despite its photo-realistic rendering, Untitled (Ocean) does not intend to embody nature, but rather, the very act of creating art.


    In the Artist’s Words



    Collector’s Digest


    • Celmins’ paintings are highly sought after and rare to market. Fewer than 20 paintings have ever come to auction. Only one Ocean painting has been offered at auction previously, which achieved $545,600 in 2003.

    • In 2020, the artist’s world record was achieved at $6,585,450. Celmins’ top 3 records at auction were all achieved within the last 7 years.

    i Vija Celmins, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, “Vija Celmins’s Surface Matters,” The New Yorker, August 26, 2019, online.
    ii Bob Nickas, “Mapping Fields of Vision,” Vija Celmins, exh. cat., Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 2017, p. 13.
    iii Vija Celmins, quoted in interview with Chuck Close, William S. Bartman, ed., Vija Celmins, New York, 1992, p. 53.

    • Provenance

      McKee Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in December 1992

    • Exhibited

      New York, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Invitational Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, March 6 – April 2, 1995, no. 52, p. 4
      New York, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Exhibition of Work by Newly Elected Members and Recipients of Honors and Awards, May 17 – June 11, 1995, no. 101, p. 17
      Deichtorhallen Hamburg; Kunsthaus Zürich, Birth of the Cool: From Georgia O'Keeffe to Christopher Wool: American Painting, February 14 – September 7, 1997, p. 142 (illustrated, p. 25)
      Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Elysian Fields, May 24 – July 24, 2000, n.p. (illustrated)
      Purchase, Neuberger Museum of Art, Living with Art: Collecting Contemporary in Metro New York, May 1 – August 14, 2010
      New York, The Met Breuer, Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, September 24, 2019 – January 12, 2020, p. 265 (illustrated, p. 142)

    • Literature

      Edward Lucie-Smith, Art Today, New York, 1995, pl. 226, p. 209 (illustrated)

Property of a Private Collector


Untitled (Ocean)

oil on canvas
14 1/4 x 16 1/2 in. (36.2 x 41.9 cm)
Painted in 1987-1988.

Full Cataloguing

$5,500,000 - 6,500,000 

Sold for $7,748,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 23 June 2021