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Vija Celmins is a California painter who experimented with photo-realism and explored graphite as an expressive medium.

She was born in Riga, Latvia in 1938, and in 1944 moved with her family to Germany where they settled in a Latvian refugee camp near Esslinger. The Celmins family then immigrated to the United States in 1948 and made their home in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Vija studied at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, and often made trips to New York City with her friends to see the artwork of the Abstract Expressionists. She continued to study at the John Herron Art Institute from 1955 to 1962. During the summer of 1961 she attended summer school at Yale University, and it was then that Celmins decided to become a painter. She moved to California in 1963 to study at the University of California, Los Angeles where she received a Master’s Degree in Fine Art. After graduating she became an instructor of painting and drawing at University of California, Los Angeles for one year.

Her style began to change in California. She rejected the ideas of the New York School (abstract expressionists) of artists and began to focus on the simplicity of her subjects. She painted everyday objects that were present in her living environment, and some of her earliest works were based on items such as a comb, a lamp, fans and a hotplate. Celmins was now interested in the process itself, not the meaning of the object. The object only represented a form to her, it existed without character or meaning. Her artwork developed out of her desire to communicate the artistic process, and shows elements of Pop Art as well as Photo-Realism.

These works were followed by a series of US and German World War II airplanes such as her painting Suspended Plane, 1966, which depicts a B-17 bomber, and which was added to the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2006. These subjects represent her war experiences, which she described as “colored mostly by the chaos of my early childhood in the war…I relived all these things—the burning houses, the airplanes, the Latvian school in Germany, my eraser, my little pencils.” (Antiques 9)

In the 1960′s she incorporated Photo-Realism into her art by painting replicas of the photographs she took. She often took pictures while she was driving to work or walking along the beach near her home in Venice Beach, California. She lived in that area between 1962 and 1980 while she attended the University of California, Irvine (1967-1972), and the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California (1976-1977). She examined the construction of the waves, and in her paintings recreated them through layers of paint and small marks carefully plotted to imitate light and shadow. Celmins also painted desert landscapes and started a series of paintings based on the constellations of the night sky. These were studies in natural space, abandoning color and absent of human life.

Shortly after completing her airplane series, Velmins stopped painting for two decades, from 1966 to 1985, so that she could focus on drawing from her photographs with graphite and acrylic. When she returned to painting again, she did many images of the night sky and spider webs.

Her varied works have been exhibited at numerous galleries and museums, among them; Dickenson Art Center, University of California Los Angeles (1965), David Stuart Galleries, Los Angeles (1966), David McKee Gallery, New York (1983, 1988, 1992), and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (1992-1994).

Sources include:
Charlotte Rubinstein, American Women Artists
Editor, “SFMOMA Acquires Vija Celmins’ Plane”, Antiques and the Arts Weekly, 3/31/2006, p. 9

Biography from the Archives of AskART.