"My first inkling of this ocean drawing came on a visit to Vija's studio in Venice, a deep long space shaped like an elongated pie slice, next door to the Venice police station.
To the right of her front door, bathed in filtered light from large storefront windows were a group of black and white photos of a section of the ocean, laid out in a row. When I asked her what they were about, Vija said 'Oh those are just photos that I shot from the end of the pier.'
Vija was, and remains, my only artist friend who didn't let friends see works in progress, so I first saw this drawing some time later when I attended the opening of Vija's Ocean Drawing exhibition at Riko Mizuno. It was 1969. I saw this drawing and bought it on the spot. It was the first to sell and Riko explained that Vija had priced it at twice what was being asked for the other same sized drawings because it was the first ocean drawing and Vija thought it twice as good as the others. After learning that I had bought it, Vija lowered the price to the same amount being asked for the others.
Vija, then as now, struggled, erased, re-painted and pushed back repeatedly, as part of making each work fit to go out into the world.
So it is kind of a mystery that at the end of a process fraught with tension, the works exude a quiet serenity, an unrelenting calm.
Los Angeles was then mainly pictured as a territory of bright color and radiant sunshine and most of the best art being made was aggressively seductive - Vija's, on the other hand, was gray, delicately touched and still. Nothing is more emblematic of Los Angeles than the Pacific, but Vija's ocean, a self-portrait really, runs deep. Her ocean is an inner one, the surface of the moving water reflective of the unconscious."
(Tony Berlant, October 2013)
Materials and techniques are two important aspects of Vija Celmin's oeuvre. At the end of the 1960s, when she began to take photographs of the ocean outside her Los Angeles home and then drew from those images, the graphite acquired an importance that pushed the picture itself into the background. The present example is among the first depictions of the ocean, a subject she would continue to explore throughout her career from the same source image through the 1990s through drawing, painting and printmaking. In the mid-1960s many painters including Gerhard Richter and Chuck Close, turned to photographs not just as source material but as their primary subject matter. Reproductions in magazines and catalogues were considered not only a means of circulating artworks but capable of serving as the very medium of art. As Henry Geldzahler wrote in 1965: "We have ARTnews, Harry Abrams, Phaidon, André Malraux, and jet travel-instant international communication. Between them nothing is unavailable. This multiplies incalculably the amount of visual material that can, and in many cases must, be brought to bear in the intelligent appreciation of contemporary art" (H. Geldzahler, The New Art, New York, 1973, p. 55).
Too often Celmins attraction to Action Painting has been overlooked. Celmins specifically remembers reading Harold Rosenberg's seminal 1957 issue of ARTnews: the action of the canvas became its own representation. An action by its nature is a sign-it is the trace of a movement whose beginning and character it does not in itself ever altogether reveal. Action painting was a refugee's art, which spoke deeply to Celmins nomadic childhood. In addition to the giants of Abstract Expressionism, a style she would take up in the early 1960s, Celmins cites a number of other painters including Girogio Morandi, Agnes Martin and perhaps, especially, Jasper Johns, whose seminal exhibition at Everett Ellin Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962 had a profound impact on her as an artist to identify the detachment and objectivity in the everyday.
While her art world contemporaries, particularly Color Field painters were exploring the relationship between paint, color and canvas, Vija Celmins moved away from making objects to rendering surfaces and worked primarily with graphite on paper as if she were trying to replicate the photograph's grain. "Tellingly, it's by rendering endless stretches of deserts and oceans, and eventually the open blankness of the night-time sky, that Celmins most firmly establishes homelessness as a dominant motif. The point of view that her art now assumes, either looking down at the ground or up at the sky, suggests a traveller brought to a standstill, shaken loose from a sense of direction or destination. There are no spotlight landmarks or relevant deeds on which to fix one's eyes; instead there's a looming abstraction-some ultimate encounter at the farthest end of representation-that belongs as much to a subjective as an objective world, a sense of deliverance and tranquility at once feared and desired" (L. Relyea, "Vija Celmins' Twilight Zone," Vija Celmins, New York, 2004, pp. 87-89).
The present drawing was acquired directly from her earliest dealer, Riko Mizuno who arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s to study ceramics at the Chouinard Art Institute. In 1967, a year before the present drawing was executed, she took over the space on La Cienega formerly occupied by the Rolf Nelson Gallery. During the ten years she occupied the space she showed many artists associated with the Ferus Gallery including Ken Price, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengson as well as a younger generation including Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein and Vija Celmins.
Untitled (Ocean) is among the first of the artist's celebrated works focusing on the sea where Celmins stretches out and captures the magnitude of the subject. The drawing has the look of photography though there is something organic-as if the collection of eddies and peaks were built by Celmins grafting one wave on another, light versus shadow, until it extends across the page. This is not a seascape in the traditional sense, as Celmins has removed the horizon line and plunges us head-first into the space, allowing our eyes to run unfettered over their surfaces with no one single detail taking precedence over another. These partial views suggest a much bigger 'whole', by seeing not the world in a grain of sand but an ocean in the span of a few yards of water.
In the late 1960s, Celmins increasingly used photographs as source material, both her own pictures and those taken by others. Unlike the majority of painters of her day, Celmins limited the size of the plane to a relatively small format while taking on subject matter that is vast and constantly in flux, like deserts, the cosmos, and oceans: "one marvels at the way in which Celmins captures the expansiveness of her subject. Yet, she simultaneously reminds the viewer that this is a work of art made by the artist with her drawing pencils on a piece of paper. Each mark or gesture remains visible but inseparable from the field. The allover image is build up stroke by stroke-just as a house is built up of tow by fours and nails. Nothing is spontaneous or left to chance; rather, the finished work is the product of painstaking craft and diligence" (ibid, p. 16).
The effect of the present drawing, however, goes beyond the ability to reproduce what is seen in the world and the medium of photography. In many ways Untitled (Ocean) merges the traditions of nineteenth century landscape painting and the abstract expressionist approach. However, Celmins' unique vision is so specifically her own experience with the world and her environment. Based directly on photographs she took from the Venice pier where she would walk her dog, sometimes accompanied by artist and friend Doug Wheeler, her intense involvement with nature was stimulated by her surrounding visual field including light, emptiness and the ambiguity of the Los Angeles landscape. Her choice of the ocean as subject matter is not, however, meant to represent a specific place. Untitled (Ocean) was a starting point for her to begin to concentrate on issues of artmaking:
"I don't think of the 'ocean image' as an image or something I'm interested in. I think of it as a way of identifying a piece of work that I can always return to...to work on...to perfect to make 'real'... I also don't have that romantic thing, that Casper Friedrich tendency to project loneliness and romance onto nature' to contract nature's grandness with tiny, insignificant watchers. I like looking and describing, using images to explore the process of making" (V. Celmins, Artist's journal, September 1984 and interview with Chuck Close, Vija Celmins, ed. William S. Bartman, 1992, p. 38).