This exceptional show of paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture by Vija Celmins is her first not in association with David McKee, her longtime dealer, who closed his Midtown gallery two years ago. It is also her first solo exhibition in New York in nearly seven years and includes about 20 new works as well as older projects. The Latvian-born, New York–based artist is best known for her skyscapes and seascapes, and both are beautifully represented here.
Night skies as Celmins envisions them are a deep velvety black pricked by points of white to create a star-filled expanding universe, all the more miraculous given the usually modest scale of her works. Sometimes Celmins inverts the process and begins with a not-quite-white ground flecked with black and ocher-ish dots that she calls the “reverse” of night skies—their negative—which, astrophysically speaking, might be truer than we know.
In one stunning painting of the sky, from 2016, executed in a golden ocher, the corners are darker so that the bright, blurred central ellipse advances outward from the picture plane, its heart a blast of white light as if the cosmos were aflame and made incandescent by countless suns. While they might also be read as abstractions of the more minimalist sort (Celmins often calls them “Untitled”), close observation reveals a rich density and propulsive force that have nothing to do with paring down. In addition, there are examples of her extraordinarily realistic drawings of waves, in which she renders the recurrent rippling of the ocean’s surfaces in graphite and woodcut with almost photographic precision.
They remind us that since the 1960s, Celmins has used black-and-white photographs of nature as a source for her work as she explores the same themes and motifs in a variety of media, within set parameters.
Some sculptures are included in the show: small painted stones and hand-held blackboards, one a found object and the other made by the artist. So closely replicated, it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. We tend to fall for trompe l’oeil—is it because we like to be fooled?—and these are particularly irresistible as is the entire exhibition, with its alluring, addictive pairing of concept and highly honed craft.