The Modern Art Museum's collection includes three key works by Vija Celmins, each of which reflects her acute sensitivity to adjustments in space, scale, and color. In the early 1960s Celmins focused on creating imagery of common domestic items, including pencils, erasers, combs, heaters, and lamps, approaching them with a style reminiscent of Edward Hopper's approach to people. As the decade progressed, Celmins broadened her range of subject matter to incorporate other objects, such as cars and airplanes, and elements from the landscape, which, like her early work, she rendered with deadpan realism.
Whether depicting objects or landscape, Celmins works from photographs and photographic reproductions. Her artistic process involves masking out a desired area within a photograph and then replicating what she has framed using a restricted gray-scale palette, similar to that of actual black-and-white photographs. By isolating part of an image for reproduction, Celmins displaces her subject from its context, severing the source from its original meaning.
German Plane, 1966 was created at a time when she was making small grisaille works with imagery culled from magazines, many of which included warplanes and photojournalistic events such as car accidents. The World War II bomber seen in German Plane is taken from a photograph Celmins found at a second-hand store in Los Angeles. She shows the menacing warplane, capturing its powerful presence and physicality just as a camera would do—in a close-cropped, scaled-down format.
Despite the fearsome bomber that takes up most of the picture plane, the work possesses an eerily calm atmosphere. Celmins shows the top of the plane from a bird's-eye view, and the landing gear is down, as if it is descending, or has just taken off. The engine propellers, however, appear to be slowly whirring, rather than blurred to indicate maximum speed, and the plane's shadow is visible on the ground below. These signs indicate that the plane is on or near the ground, but the landscape in the background is diminished, even generalized to the point of abstraction.
Shortly after creating German Plane, Celmins took a nearly ten-year reprieve from painting, and it was during these years that she created Untitled, 1970. With her landscapes, she moved away from objects with cultural attachments to depict universal subject matter. Using pencil and paper, Celmins began depicting the oceans, deserts, lunar floors, and skies. As in her painting of the ominous German bomber, with Untitled, Celmins conveys a vast subject within a small, controlled space of a flat sheet of paper.
Night Sky #17 is a generic clip from yet another infinite subject, the sky, in an intimate format. Celmins smoothed out the raw canvas tooth by using a thick layer of gesso and then sanding it to make the surface even. Next she applied a matte gray pigment, dabbing it sporadically with white to indicate the stars. The picture takes on the quality of a distant satellite view, but the subtle bursts of white scattered throughout the canvas have the distinct quality of actual light. This artistic process helps Celmins create an image that is at once dull and luminous. In this sense, for the artist, painting the night sky is an exploration of the relationship between her material, how to treat its surface, and her content.