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The Prints of Vija Celmins

October 15 ­ December 29, 2002


Prints of ocean surfaces, star-filled night skies, and desert floors, among other images, by the contemporary artist Vija Celmins will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 15 through December 29, 2002. The Prints of Vija Celmins, the first-ever print retrospective by this Latvian-born American artist, will feature some 50 works including a selection of drawings and artist's books.

Internationally known for her intensely realistic paintings and drawings, Celmins has worked in the print medium since the early 1960s, meticulously rendering details of the natural environment through a careful exploration of process and mark. Celmins's oeuvre reveals an engagement with the natural world evident in the history of art from Giotto's azure sky on the ceiling of the Arena Chapel (ca. 1305) to Martin Johnson Heade's (1819-1904) luminist seas and Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889), yet her approach is the result of a modern sensibility. Derived from photographs rather than direct observation ­ "the photographs are the subject matter," Celmins has said-her images dispel romantic notions of nature's sublime and instead embody a feeling of quietude and remove. (left: Vija Celmins, Unitiled (Desert), 1971, lithograph, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, John B. Turner Fund, 1972, 1972.501.5)

The subject matter, in fact, is secondary to Celmins, whose primary interest is in ongoing investigation of the formal aspects of art making, particularly the representataion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface.

An important group of prints from 1985 called Concentric Bearings will be featured prominently in the exhibition. When asked about these, Celmins once remarked: "A theme developed around describing space."

In the late 1960s, Celmins moved away from painting to embrace the basic properties of the graphite pencil, shortly thereafter limiting her motifs to contained images of ocean surfaces, nighttime skies, and desert and lunar floors. Her concentrated body of prints evolved naturally from her virtuoso drawing skill. Like such renowned printmakers as Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Celmins is able to masterfully render an array of distinctive yet highly subtle marks, while brilliantly mediating tones ranging from the deepest black to the palest gray.

Celmins's prints reflect a keen interest in the traditional methods of printmaking from wood engraving and etching to mezzotint and lithography. Included in The Prints of Vija Celmins will be two rare examples of the artist's early work in etching and drypoint, View of Quarry (1962) and Utopia (1963); early lithographs made at Tamarind Lithography Workshop and Cirrus Editions in Los Angeles; and several intaglio works made at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles in the early and mid- 1980s, including a number of prints in which Celmins combined two or more plates on a single sheet. These include Constellation ­ Uccello (1983) and Alliance (1983) and are similar to a later series, Concentric Bearings, in that they derive elements of their composition from "found" photographic sources such as a reproduction of Uccello's celebrated 15th-century perspective drawing of a chalice and an image of an engineer's drawing of a ship.

The exhibition will also include examples of more recent works, such as an exquisite woodcut and a wood engraving of the ocean surface made at Grenfell Press in New York in 1992 and 2000, respectively. (left: Vija Celmins, Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000, 2000, wood engraving The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Gift of Nelson Blitz and Catherine Woodard in honor of Perri and Allison Blitz, 2002, 2002.127)

Images of delicate spider webs, Celmins's latest motif, will be exhibited along with a select number of recently completed prints on view in New York for the first time. The diligent and adept arachnid is an appropriate metaphor for the artist ­ "Maybe I identify with the spider," she has said. "I'm the kind of person who works on something forever and then works on the same image again the next day."

In addition to the prints, six drawings, and three books, a sampling of wood blocks and copper plates will be on view. Featured among the artist's books will be The View (1985), with poems by Czeslaw Milosz. This stunning book contains four mezzotints by Celmins, all of which will be on display. A graphite drawing, Drawing ­ Saturn (1982), served as the inspiration for one of the mezzotints and will be exhibited alongside the printed work.

Vija Celmins was born in 1938 in Riga, Latvia, and moved with her family to the United States in 1948. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Herron School of Art in 1962 and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1965. Her first solo exhibition took place in Los Angeles in 1966. Celmins has taught at the University of California, Irvine; California Institute of the Arts, Valencia; Cooper Union; and Yale University. From 1992 to 1994, a midcareer retrospective of her work, organized at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, traveled to the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

She has also had one-artist exhibitions at the Newport Harbor Museum, Newport Beach, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, the Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, and the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main. Celmins currently lives and works in New York.

The Prints of Vija Celmins is organized by Samantha Rippner, Assistant Curator in the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Drawings and Prints. The accompanying catalogue will include an introduction by Samantha Rippner and an interview with the artist and two of her closest collaborators, master printers Leslie Miller and Doris Simmelink. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, it will be available in the Museum's book shop. This publication is made possible in part by a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Derald H. Ruttenberg and the Mary C. and James W. Fosburgh Publications Fund. It documents The Prints of Vija Celmins in addition to serving as the most complete record of Celmins's printed oeuvre to date.

A variety of programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition. These will include gallery talks, a reading of Czeslaw Milosz's poetry in the galleries, and a lecture by the artist on Sunday, December 8, 2002 at 3:00 p.m. in the Museum's Grace Rainey Rogers auditorium.


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