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A Q&A with Vija Celmins curator Gary Garrels

April 25th, 2019

A detailed black and white drawing of a spiderweb.
Vija Celmins, Untitled (Web #1), 1998. Charcoal on paper, 56.5 x 64.8 cm. Tate Modern, London, acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Vija Celmins. Photo courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Vija Celmins is renowned for her fascinating and entrancing portrayals of natural imagery, ranging from ocean waves to the sky at night. With its exquisite detail, Celmins’s work encourages viewers to take a moment and look closer to consider the captivating beauty in both her work and the natural world around us. Ten years in the making, Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory is a comprehensive retrospective of more than five decades of the artist’s paintings, drawings and sculptures, and will open at the AGO on May 4.

We spoke with Gary Garrels, the Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA and the exhibition’s co-curator, to find out more about Celmins’s work and the upcoming show at the AGO.

A colour photo of a a man with glasses smiling and wearing a suit
Gary Garrels. Photo by Katherine Du Tiel, courtesy SFMOMA

AGO: How and where did you first encounter the work of Vija Celmins?

Garrels: It was at a 1982 exhibition at the McKee Gallery in New York, that was where she first showed the work To Fix the Image in Memory, and I remember thinking it was such a magical piece. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing and what the intent and meaning of it all was, but I found it mesmerizing.

AGO: If you had to describe Celmins’s work to someone who knew nothing about it, how would you do it?

Garrels: It’s work that encourages concentration and focus, and rewards slow looking. For me, there is a real pleasure in paying close attention. It’s extremely rewarding for people who give it some time.

AGO: In the AGO exhibition catalogue, you describe her as “a singular artist.” Can you tell us what you mean?

Garrels: She wasn’t part of a group or a movement; she really followed her own course through her entire career. Her work doesn’t get folded into any generalities about contemporary art, because it’s very unique and specific to her.

An oil on canvas painting of a weathered book cover
Vija Celmins, Japanese Book, 2007–8. Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 31.8 cm. Private collection © Vija Celmins. Photo: courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

AGO: Do you have a favourite work or series in Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory?

Garrels: I love every one of the works, but I have a particular soft spot for the Japanese Book (2007–8). I saw it at the McKee Gallery in 2010, and it was a real standout of that show for me. It’s an extremely beautiful work, and it sums up everything I love about her work – the attention to detail and the specific choice of subject. All of Celmins’s works develop from objects with which she has a relationship. This was an object she found, took back to the studio and clearly felt a connection. It’s an exquisitely beautiful painting.

Gary Garrels will deliver a Curator’s Talk about the exhibition on Friday, May 3. Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory opens on May 4 and is included in General Admission.

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