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Night Sky #12

Vija Celmins (American, b. 1938)


Medium oil on canvas mounted on panel Measurements H: 31 x W: 37 1/2 x D: 1 1/4 in. (78.7 x 95.25 x 3.17 cm) Credit The Henry L. Hillman Fund Accession Number 1996.37 Location Gallery 17, Scaife Galleries


Since the 1960s, Vija Celmins has been creating paintings of the world around her in an on-going investigation of painting as an illusionistic enterprise. She works mostly from her own snapshots, creating images of ocean waves, starry skies, and stony surfaces to represent seemingly infinite natural phenomena. Although her subjects may suggest a variety of psychological and philosophical allusions, Celmins denies any specific symbolic intent, emphasizing instead a combination of flat and illusory techniques. In Night Sky #12, Celmins compresses the boundless space of a galaxy into a small painting, readjusting something of immeasurable scale to human proportions. Covering the surface with flat dots of paint, she manipulates the depth of the image so it appears to bind itself directly to the flat picture plane. Step back from the work, however, and the perceptual games begin; the galaxy seems to grow backward and forward simultaneously. The intimate scale of the painting, combined with the vastness of its subject, reflect the dual limitations of the canvas and of the mechanisms of illusion.

Artist Bio

Born in Riga, Latvia in 1938, Vija Celmins currently lives and works in New York City. Celmins graduated from John Herron Institute in Indianapolis with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1962 and received her Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1965. In 1961, she was awarded a fellowship to the Yale University Summer Session. Celmins has taught at a number of art schools in the States, including California State College, Los Angeles, from 1965-1966; the University of California at Irvine from 1967-1972; the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, from 1976-1977; the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, in 1981; the Cooper Union, New York, in 1984, and the Yale Graduate School, New Haven, CT, in 1987. She has been the subject of a number of solo exhibitions since 1965, most recently at venues including the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2007); the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2006); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2002), Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, and Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (all in 1996-1997). In addition to appearances in the Whitney Biennial (1997 and 2002) and the 50th Venice Biennale (2003), Celmins has been featured in many group exhibitions internationally, including at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2006-2007, 1973, and 1971); at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2006-2007, 2000-2001, 1977, and 1976); at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2006, 2005, 2002, 2001, 1991, and 1972); at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2006, 1989, and 1984); at the Vancouver Art Gallery (2003), and at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London (1996-1997 and 1994). Celmins has also been awarded a number of prestigious prizes, grants, and fellowships, including the Rhode Island School of Design Athena Award for Excellence in Painting (2006); the Skowhegan Medal for Painting and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (both in 1997); the Guggenheim Fellowship (1980), and the Artist's Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1976 and 1971).