The first image encountered in the soul-stirring Vija Celmins drawings retrospective at the Hammer Museum serves as a potent epigraph to the tale that unfolds beyond. The show is installed chronologically except for this image, which dates from 1983, around the midpoint of the exhibition's 40-year span.
A 21-inch square, the sheet is dense with the darkness of a night sky flecked with small, brilliant spots of light. Near the center hovers a diffused luminous patch suggesting a galaxy. To see the image is to enter it, to become immediately more alert to our position in the universe, to the invisible coordinates that map physical location and psychological orientation.
That may seem a lot of weight for a single, modest image to carry, but it is gorgeous and evocative, its connotations spurred by Celmins' title: "Holding on to the Surface." She reminds us, as if we might set our gaze too far out, to also savor the gleaming graphite skin she has built up, layer by layer. Hold on to the present object, she urges, even as it compels you to consider unreachable, expansive, amorphous space. Be in the moment, and at the same time ponder infinity.
Celmins' work has vast conceptual scope and yet a profoundly sensual intimacy. There is something banal in the way she transcribes photos into drawings and something sublime in the result. Rarely does art so packed with contradiction induce such satisfaction -- bliss, even, and of so many different origins: optical, visceral, physical, cerebral.
The exhibition originated in Paris, at the Centre Pompidou, where it was curated by Jonas Storsve (author also of the modest, handsome catalog). The Hammer is its only other venue. Consider the show's arrival in Los Angeles a great opportunity. The last chance Southern Californians had to see Celmins' work in quantity was in late 1993, when a retrospective of her prints, drawings, paintings and sculpture traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Celmins lives in New York, but much of this work has its roots in L.A., where she lived in the '60s and '70s, completing her master's in fine arts at UCLA in 1965, having her first solo gallery show in 1966 and developing her long-standing imagery of tightly rendered night skies and oceans.
Her early paintings (an unseen prequel to the show) portrayed single ordinary objects such as lamps and fans set against neutral grounds -- part Pop dumbness and part Morandi meditation. The first body of drawings in the exhibition, dating from 1967-68, extends from that work. These too are still-lifes of solitary objects, but now flat objects, photographs clipped from magazines, an envelope addressed to the artist from her mother. Celmins ratchets up the conceptual complexity in these illusionistic renderings of flat matter on flat surfaces. The Vietnam-era drawings also derive, more explicitly than anything that follows, from her own personal experience of war, destruction and loss.
Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1938, Celmins and her family fled the country, which had already been invaded, in turn, by Soviets and Nazis, in 1944, boarding a ship that was bombed while still in port. They made it to Danzig, then Berlin, then Leipzig, then Esslingen, and in 1948 immigrated to the U.S., living briefly in New York before settling in Indianapolis. Her art's evocation of place and placelessness resonates poignantly with her tenuous, nomadic childhood.
The drawings of news photographs show warplanes in flight, a decimated Hiroshima, the atomic blast at Bikini. The clippings appear to have been torn from their sources, folded and creased by repeated handling. They occupy the center of each sheet like relics, isolated and reiterated for emphasis.
Amid the images of news clippings taken from the public domain, the drawing of the letter stands out as particularly personal. Celmins titles it "Letter," though the drawing shows only the envelope, the vehicle, with her mother's delicate tracery script, legible postmarks and an inordinate number of stamps.
Why five stamps totaling 30 cents on an envelope postmarked 1966? Celmins has the work doing double duty, as both document and diary entry, a notation on the feel of her mother's handwriting and another reminder of the imprint left on her by scenes of destruction. Three stamps along the envelope's top edge form a continuous image of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. One in the second row shows a voluminous cloud or billowing smoke. The other depicts a burning house, an image she had also sculpted a few years earlier.
The stamps are not just drawn but cut out with tiny scalloped edges, as if perforated, and affixed in the manner of real postage to the faux envelope. Such conceptual tricksterism threads through Celmins' work, deepening its self-reflexive thoughtfulness and leavening it with a bit of visual play.