“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 built up stroke by stroke-just as a house is built up of two by fours and nails. Nothing is spontaneous or left to chance; rather, the finished work is the product of painstaking craft and diligence.”
Throughout her career, Vija Celmins has grappled with the impossible task of rendering the vast, unknowable expanses of the world. Her meticulous and exquisite works on paper wrestle into being the ephemeral and fleeting qualities of the ocean, desert, and night sky. Created in 1969, Lead Sea #2 is one of the earliest and finest examples of her iconic ocean drawings, in which the indefinite and limitless quality of the ocean’s surface is re-created in an infinitesimal array of delicate graphite marks. The subtle gray tones assiduously applied in careful and painstaking fashion betray not a single errant mark, making for a skin-like matrix of undulating waves whose flawless appearance floats atop the paper’s surface. Materialized rather than drawn, Lead Sea #2 transcends mere representation to invoke the human experience of gazing out over the vast open sea. Dating to 1969, Lead Sea #2 was created at a seminal moment when Celmins ceased painting entirely to focus her efforts on drawing alone. In the works that followed, she forged new techniques that fundamentally recalibrated the course of her career. Though the majority of her ocean drawings were created in the few years between 1968 and 1977, the motif sustained her for many years after, as she continued the theme in painting and printmaking into the 1990s. Highly-prized by collectors and curators alike, Celmins’s exquisite ocean drawings are among her most significant contributions to field of modern art, with examples owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Philadelphia Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Art, and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Lead Sea #2 illustrates the obsessive detail and impeccable draftsmanship of Celmins’s unrelenting study. During a prolonged spell lasting many months— sometimes even years—Celmins’s concentration on her subject borders on monastic devotion. In Lead Sea #2, the subtle nuances built up over countless days and months transform the drawing from simple mimetic representation into a sublime new realm. The peaks and troughs of the softly undulating sea that pepper the drawing’s surface display the artist’s unrivalled technical skill. She teases out the deepest, darkest oceanic shadow and its most ephemeral counterpart from delicate graphite strokes. Distant areas of mist and softly rippled waves are assiduously constructed from the simplest of means. Particularly exquisite is Celmins’s handling of the ocean waves along the upper register, which softly dissipate into the horizon’s atmospheric haze. She integrates the white border of the paper sheet as both frame and horizon line, capturing the real-life phenomenon of gazing into the distance while searching for the ocean’s edge. Viewed from afar, the drawing perfectly evokes the crispness and precision of black-and-white photography, yet upon closer inspection the features dematerialize into an array of nearly microscopic graphite marks. Over the course of many months, the nearly infinite artistic choices made by Celmins coalesce to capture a truly fathomless entity that’s constantly in flux yet perfectly still.
In 1962, Vija Celmins moved to Venice, California to pursue an MFA at the University of California, Los Angeles. She kept a studio in Venice and often strolled along the boardwalk while walking her dog, sometimes accompanied by her fellow artist and friend Doug Wheeler. She began to take photographs of the Pacific Ocean as she gazed out toward the horizon from the pier, or tilting her head at a forty-five-degree angle looking down upon the waves. These photographs served as the springboard for the ocean drawings she would begin in 1968. Back in her studio, Celmins often adjusted the photographs, either taping them together in a panoramic layout or using sheets of white paper to crop out the sky, leaving visible only the ocean waves and eliminating any sense of footing or perspective. The ocean photographs provided Celmins with the ideal image with which to begin her drawings since their flat abstract design perfectly suited the inherently flat surface of paper. In a 1996 interview in Flash Art, Celmins described this effect, which she felt allowed the image to “lock” in place: “In Malibu, in maybe late 1968, I had one of those light-bulb thoughts. I used to walk my dog on the beach and take pictures of the ocean ...It occurred to me that if I were to make an image that was solid looking but still trying to pull you into a picture, there would be a problem. But if I had an image that interlocked with the picture plane, then the problem would be solved. That’s when the ocean images evolved” (V. Celmins, quoted in J. Rian, “Vastness in Flatland: Jeff Rian in Conversation with Vija Celmins,” Flash Art International, no. 189, July-August-September 1996).
Celmins’s photographs of the Pacific Ocean inaugurated a new era in her work in which drawing became her sole focus. Between 1968 and 1977, she produced an array of ethereal ocean drawings that remain some of her most cherished work. Perhaps, not surprisingly, in the countless months and years Celmins spent laboring over her ocean drawings, she became intimately acquainted with her medium, even telling one interviewer: “I fell in love with the lead” (V. Celmins, ibid.) In Lead Sea #2, Celmins references what was for her such an important and fundamental means to expressing her own unique vision. She described: “I had been working with the pencil and I began to see that the graphite itself had a certain life to it. So, I did a series...using different grades of graphite and pushing each one to its limit. I learned a lot about the possibilities of expressiveness in graphite by doing this” (V. Celmins, quoted in Drawing as Thinking, exh. cat., Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 1999; accessed 9/23/2017 via http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/celmins-ocean-p78336). Indeed, even Celmins’s witty title—Lead Sea—alludes to lead, playing on the physical impossibility of rendering a fluid body of water out of a hard, impenetrable material such as lead, even though she did just that (pictorially speaking). Celmins also noticed the subtle range in tonalities that varied between different types of lead, treating each as a variation in a musical scale: “the hard H lead has a different quality from the softer B: ‘I explored this quality in a series of scales... fourteen oceans moving from H’s to B’s. I hit each one like a tone, the graphite itself had an expressive quality’” (V. Celmins, quoted in C. Whiting, Pop L.A.: Art in the Sixties, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006, pp. 51-52).