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Too Cool for School

by Sarah E. Fensom

A show at LACMA examines the early work of Vija Celmins, often classed with the California “Cool School” but really in a category all its own.

In Vija Celmins’ 1964 oil on canvas Gun with Hand #1, a pale outstretched arm grips a small handgun with a finger holding the trigger. A liminal haze of smoke hangs suspended before the painting’s taupe background. The smoke’s presence informs the viewer that the gun has just been fired, yet its inert quality suspends any impressions of the violence that must have resulted. Celmins painted two other images of pointed guns in 1964, Hand Holding a Firing Fun and Pistol. Both have the same wreath of smoke and the same feeling of calmness after action.

Celmins, who was born in Riga, Latvia, moved to Indiana in 1948 with her family and then to Los Angeles to pursue and MFA in painting at UCLA. A friend had given Celmins his gun for safekeeping during a move. The gun, which was just sitting in her Venice Beach studio, intrigued the artist and she had another friend pose for a photograph holding the firearm. The photo gave rise to three paintings and two years of work depicting isolated and contained acts of violence with a detached, voyeuristic attitude.

Work from this period will be on view at LACMA from March 13 through June 5 in an exhibition titled “Television and Disaster 1964–1966.” The show, organized by LACMA and the Menil Collection, Houston, strives to bring attention to this formative and tumultuous time in the career of an artist who is best known for her incredibly detailed paintings and drawings of gray ocean waves, delicate spider webs and glittering night skies. Furthermore, this gathering of work will place Celmins among the ranks of the mostly male members of California’s “Cool School” movement in the early 1960s.

Celmins’ arrival in L.A. in 1962 happened to coincide with a major shift in the city’s art world. A group of artists who rejected the abstract expressionism of the previous decade and also desired to achieve a more relaxed, removed disposition than the Pop artists working in New York began to dominate the West Coast. This group’s moniker, the “Cool School,” grew from an essay by Artforum editor Philip Leider. He described California Pop artists like Larry Bell, Joe Goode and Ed Ruscha as having the same distrust for mass media and consumerism as their New York counterparts, but instead with a “hatred for the superfluous, a drive toward compression, a precision of execution,” that made their work more subtle and economical.

Celmins found inspiration in the artists who were showing at Walter Hopps’ Ferus Gallery and in LACMA’s legendary 1963 exhibition “Six Painters and the Object,” in which Jasper Johns’ paintings of the American flag were debuted. She experimented with the popular practice of painting found or common everyday objects (think Goode’s 1961 Milk Bottle Painting (Green), trying to make the trend her own. She depicted objects from her studio and home, like a tiny space heater deep orange with warmth, sizzling eggs and a pink pearl eraser, and later images from the newspapers or TV, like fighter jets, the menacing headlights of trucks and the hungry flames of car fires. Yet her dull, muted palettes and meticulous details were laid back even for the Cool School, and her peers agreed that her work lacked the typical “L.A.” look. As a result, Celmin’s work from this period has long been undefined and cast aside into its own stylistic gray area.

In T.V., another painting from 1964, Celmins foreshadows the postmodern movement by incorporating a found object from her studio and an alarming image from the media. A gray plot of negative space surrounds a highly representational depiction of the artist’s studio television, which in turn acts as a frame for an airplane nose-diving through smoke and debris. Celmins watched the image of the airplane flash across her TV screen while watching news coverage of the Vietnam war. In the painting, the plane is frozen in midair—it is able neither to crash nor to go back and avoid the blow that has set it on its fateful course. As with the gun, Celmins manipulates the image of the plane so that it suggests violence without revealing it.

The falling plane resonated with the artist, who witnessed bombings and violence as a child growing up in Latvia during World War II. Channeling her childhood memories, Celmins created House #1, House #2 and WWII Puzzle Games. The “houses” are three-dimensional constructions made of cardboard, painted with Celmins’ trademark guns and flames around their sides. Similarly, the “puzzle game” utilizes the image of the nose-diving plane, which this time is placed on wood and under plastic, with glass marbles designed to roll over its surface. Celmins has been quoted as saying, “Because the first 10 years of my life had been so dominated by war in Europe, I found myself reaching back to it. I re-created the toys and puzzles and other things remembered from my school days.” These works, which blend the horrors of war with the innocence of puzzles and games, recall the observations of a child who has become accustomed to images of violence and yet still has an innate desire to learn and play.

It is about time these complicated and conceptual works got their due. Drawing on both childhood memories and observations from her daily life, Celmins created a style that was all her own.

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2011

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