Hans-Joachim Müller
Art critic

Laudatio for Vija Celmins on the occasion of the Award of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2009

Maybe it’s like this: photography is an experience in space, painting is an experience in time. When a photograph has been developed, a piece of the world has been discovered; and when a picture has been painted, time has passed. Or should we say that when a picture has been painted, time has gathered, collected, been compacted – that the picture is full of time?
Vija Celmins says she likes to imagine that art can stop time: ‘When you work on a piece for a good long while, it seems to overpower time. Paintings that I like (such as those of Piero della Francesca, for example) are somehow motionless, a compressed time period that opens your eyes. If you put a lot of time into a work of art, something happens to slow the picture down, to make it more bodily, to keep you at it.’
Slow pictures. It’s a nice idea: the stream of time has become so pensive – that is, so thoughtful – that its speed can no longer be calibrated. It’s pleasant to imagine pictures stepping into the path of time, amiably barring its way; and time having no objection to any of it, what with its hands full already just spreading out into those pictures and filling them up; and the pictures would themselves be nothing other than batteries of time, storage containers for time in the midst of all of life’s acceleration and exhaustion.
In a wonderful work from the late seventies, Celmins takes the measure of time, as it were – or rather of timelessness, which is in truth the same thing. She gathered stones and used them to create a shape; next she cast these same stones in bronze and painted the casts so expertly with acrylics that it was impossible to say which was the real stone and which the artificial. Eleven pairs. One title: ‘To fix the image in memory.’ Stones are the very image of time. There is so much time condensed within them that they are in fact extremely dense objects, and it is no easy matter simulating this structure in a laboratory. There isn’t really any stand-in for a stone. All we can do is fix the image of the stone in our memory. That is what the artist means when she says that the images she likes have something motionless about them, a compressed time period that opens our eyes.
The plethora of clever essays written about Celmins’ work have typically stressed what might be called the philosophical turn of her images, enjoyed good results when testing their theoretical solidity, and come to the conclusion that what she does can be nothing other than ‘epistemological painting’: painting, that is, which deploys a critique of knowledge to help construct the material world anew (Richard Rhodes). What sounds like a decisive plan of action, however, is belied by the quite different signals sent out by the paintings themselves: signals that betoken a curious paralysis, a quiet, entirely low-key obligation, a basic lack of responsibility for the motor processes known as life.
The eloquence of many of these texts, too, is conspicuous, as if there were something essentially illicit, something unacceptable, something quite unbearable about her unusually taciturn paintings. As if the colossal void that is constantly forming around them needs to be filled in. Because after all, it is not the case that these pictures tell stories about our world, that they have something important to recount, that they are concerned with significance and signifiers, that they believe themselves able to mimic the world, to represent it. Rather, observing Celmins’ paintings, viewers have the impression that they have stumbled into a gap in reality, into a hollow or silent space in which that which can be seen is absent at the moment, in which objects are present in the form of apparitions – suspended in a fluid of breathlessness and pulselessness. You might say that the image is the negation of the thing, an oddly airless aura, charged and shimmering with tension.
In olden days, before mobile phones came with an aperture and photographs were still brought into the world with the help of a chemical midwife, the traces of a form seemed to rise up out of the black paper in the darkroom, trembling like a naiad in the developing solution. You had to fix such images quickly before they vanished again. There is nothing quick about Celmins’ work. And yet her paintings do have something to do with fixing. It takes Celmins hours, days, weeks, months at a time to fix the image in memory. Centimeter by centimeter. The grand gesture, the stroke of genius won’t cut it in this pursuit. Celmins was suspicious right from the start of that contemporary art that effortlessly strings images together. Painting requires effort. There isn’t any way around it. Painting requires patience. But not only patience, as we shall see. More than anything, painting is detail work. It requires the most exquisite triage and the most judicious eye to fit an object into its particular gap in reality. Perhaps one might imagine the object and the void it sets off as two solids in Euclidean space, in indifferent equilibrium with one another. Now, this indifferent equilibrium is not something that belongs to one solid or the other, in the manner of a predicate. No, it is nothing other than effect, pure effectiveness, invisible between and around the solids. But what if one were to call the object and the void, its indifferent equilibrium a ‘still life’? A still life is not simply a genre of visual art. A still life is also always a utopia, nothing less than a first impression of the world, the world rendered silent in its objects.
‘Painting,’ says the painter, in a cautionary tone, ‘may be something extremely precise and comprehensive, but not to the extent that one could define it exhaustively.’ All right then: what can we say without any claim to a definitive utterance? Well, this for example: Celmins has never painted a single non-objective picture, nor a single figurative painting. Which means that, to this day, against the backdrop of the fads prevailing in the second half of the 20th century, and in particular the evolution of art in the US, she has explicitly chosen to go her own way. It is a feature of her work that has always been as plain as day, its unbending non-conformity, the utter lack of belligerence in its defence of its own distance from a chameleon-like art industry. Which does not for all that mean that her paintings are timeless. Indeed, her cohort of colleagues in particular reserve for Celmins an esteem enjoyed by only a few, and which is, as it happens, equally high on the east coast and in California both.
Not one single non-objective picture, nor a single figurative painting: and yet her œuvre does include one particular arm, and one renowned right hand, squeezing the trigger on the pistol in its grip. And then of course there are those scenes of catastrophe from the 1960s, the ‘burning man’ attempting to get away from his burning car. And yet it would scarcely do the image justice to call the awful torch a figure. Rather, it is like a shadow that gives the amorphous inferno a certain contour. And when in another painting a ‘truck’ comes careering toward us out of the darkness, we are dazzled by its headlights, and there is no one to be seen behind the wheel. While her painting does not necessarily intend to advance the proposition that the world would be conceivable in the absence of a human exegesis, neither does it mean to suggest that this same world would be mute without human speech and interpretation. Perhaps what she wants to say is that the world can give an account of itself even without the aid of human speech and interpretation.
This is also why the things that Celmins paints do not give rise to a cosmology. A couple of table-lamps, a slight ripple, a marvellously artful spider web, a bit of desert land and a section of the starry night – this is not the stuff that reports are made of, much less novels. The painter’s creations are not suitable for use as a parameter, whether among physicists or metaphysicists. It would be a bit reckless to show a child one of Celmins’ paintings and say, That’s how the world looks, or to go so far as to point at it and say, See, see, that’s how it should look! On the other hand, however, you couldn’t say that the painter’s work has nothing to do with the world – that it is otherworldly. Nothing would be farther from the truth than to suppose that Celmins' subjects are merely random occasions for a painting, as if the artist just needed something – anything – to prove her virtuosity in oils on canvas or graphite on paper primed with acrylics.
No, these are subjects selected with care. And they always seem to have called to the painter from offstage, where they may have been awaiting their cue for quite some time. And they always appear one by one from the back of the stage. It’s time for their entrance. The hot plate has been switched on, the hand holding the pistol has just fired it, the electric oven is still radiating heat and light, the spider web (you might think) is trembling ever so slightly, the mirror-like surface of the water has just been shattered into a thousand wave particles, and the starry sky – what is it if not the charted path of unimaginable motion?
Not that Celmins has ever painted movement, to say nothing of the illusion of movement. It’s something else. Whatever motion – or shall we say, energy – is stored up in these objects, it is not tangible. It is potential energy that cannot be exploited, cannot be converted into its kinetic counterpart. You might say that what makes these things look as if they were loaded with energy is a sort of looking. What makes these things look as if they were loaded with energy makes them return the gaze. Strangely, mysteriously, intensely. So that we cannot avoid their gaze. And it is this, the objects’ strangely, mysteriously intense return of our gaze that also distinguishes them from the work of Jasper Johns, for instance. The two artists have experience with the same item of everyday use: Jasper Johns cast two cans of Ballantine’s in bronze, while Celmins has painted a can of ‘Sparkling Ginger Ale’. But it’s more than simply a difference of brand names. Celmins’ heroizing and ennobling of her banal subject is entirely different from the lonely can, reciting its strangely, mysteriously intense monologue with stupendous urgency in its vaulted grey space.
And when Celmins displays two newspaper clippings, one showing a photo of an irradiated Bikini Atoll and the other that of Hiroshima after the explosion of the atomic bomb, she is making much more than a mute political statement. Although she is indeed also making such a statement in her painting. Nothing would be farther from the truth than to deny that her work has explicit, unmistakable political implications. And these drawings are every bit as politically intended as the picture of the arm, the picture of the hand holding a pistol, the picture of the finger that has just squeezed the trigger. And yet at the same time – and this is no less political – the painter also paints her own compulsion to look, her own astonishment that she cannot forget the two newspaper clippings; she paints the hold they have on her, the way the two clippings return her gaze with a strange, mysterious, commanding intensity.
Accounts of perception are always simplifications of complex processes. Subject, predicate, object. So it must be. And yet it is never so. Object relations are never truly concluded. Sight begins in the midst of precognition and ends in unpredicted visual processes. Once seen, images continue to work their effect: they are forgotten, repressed, remembered; they intersect with other images from one’s memory, give rise to hybrid forms, fill the visual memory card over which we have no control. That which epistemology would like to understand as a relation in reality frays into metastasizing associations, into a perpetual series of new alliances with its objects, into relationships both proximate and remote. Seeing means choosing the correct distance, and avoiding the wrong one. If you get too close to things they can become hard to bear, and one’s gaze yearns to turn away. And if you are too distant, you sacrifice the detail that defines the object to a generalizing impression. This is the classical setting of cognition, which makes the success of cognition dependent upon the distance of its subject.
Seeing, by comparison, is pure potential energy. Seeing cannot be exploited. Seeing cannot be used for profit. Seeing is not cognition. Seeing is prior to cognition. Seeing is a means of encountering. And in contrast to cognition, which only functions at the correct focal distance and fragments into the merest cognitive fog on either side of that value, seeing means both: subtle proximity and prudent discretion. It is a process with an unpredictable course. And thus, entangled in a process with an unpredictable course, the painter encounters her objects; and thus do her objects encounter her. From time to time there have been those who wish to claim her work for what is known as ‘hyper-realism’. An utterly unsuitable category. Apart from the fact that it has long since lost its force in the art world through overuse, it offers no purchase for these particular pictures. If it is to be taken seriously at all, the concept defines a garishly precise cognitive attitude to objects. Hyper-realism, by these terms, is a kind of betrayal of the usurped world of objects, which is offered in a hyper-realistic painting like an exhibit in a court of law. Celmins never offers anything this way.
‘No composition – no gestures – no artificial colour – no distortion – no visible fear or effort – no ego – (expressionless images)’: the painter sketched out her creed thus in the early 1960s. James Lingwood called it a ‘litany of self-denial’. A ‘litany of self-denial’? I believe it supplies the building blocks for a hermeneutics of seeing. This is a work whose basic attitude is seeing, looking. Looking stands in determined contradiction to design and motivation. Nothing manufactured, conceived, compelled, moved, accelerated, invented or simulated. All of the means of aesthetic practice converge in looking. In this context, painting as medium is far more an accompaniment than it is a documentation. As we have already had cause to note, painting is an experience in time. And the picture of the desiccated desert, setting down with infinite patience every centimeter of plantlessness, naturelessness, indeed lifelessness, is every bit as much a distillation of painting-time as is the cratered surface of the moon, in which every centimeter of meteorite bombardment is set down with infinite patience. Both pictures are equally a token of the passage of painting-time, that is: the time of painting. Each picture is a colloid of lived time, one that has been filled with irrevocable, inaccessible history. If it were in fact the case that the secret of this painting style is to be found in its epistemological character, as we have been told; if its entire magic were down to nothing other than the fact that its epistemological bent can be used to help reconstruct the material world – then both its secret and its magic would be very quickly exhausted. Celmins’ paintings have more to do with experiences assembled in the act of painting. Experiences that are all inscribed somewhere in her pictures.
Every impulse has its origin in the eye’s amazed, perhaps shocked consternation, in its inability to look away. And the magical effect of seeing, which gives rise to all of Celmins' objects, the magical effect of its immateriality, increases in direct proportion with the apparent objectivity of the work in question, with the ostensible seductiveness and suggestiveness of its objects.
Let us suppose we were once again to live the moment in which we first forced our eyes open. And let us suppose we did not close them again immediately with a cry, dazed by the excessive brightness, the excessive dazzle of everything, by its disproportionate ability to make us exclaim. Let us suppose this was the case, and that the first thing we beheld on that occasion was – a constellation. One of Celmins’ overwhelming constellations. A constellation about which we knew nothing, not its name, not its significance, not its disposition, not its practical astronomical value, not its scientific application and neither its beauty nor its ugliness. What would happen?
What would happen is – we would be imprinted, once and for all. Visually imprinted. Astronomically imprinted. And all subsequent visual information about the world, images of the world and of the world beyond would have to be measured against that initial visual impression. It would become our template, properly speaking, our benchmark for all future images. Indelible early traces on the pia mater. The basic entry in our limbic storehouse. And it would never occur to us that this constellation of ours could be a representation of the stars.
Assuming we could in fact remember the way it was at that moment, we would still be reeling from it to this day. Pure seeing. Seeing prior to its colonization by appearances. Seeing prior to the triumph of objects and meanings. Seeing without having to worry about what can be seen. An incredible, powerful, completely improbable experience. Seeing without seeing anything. Empty seeing. What has become of all of that marvellous seeing? Has it all been deleted, squandered in the world of signs?
Perhaps art is simply another word for a reprise of wonderment after the loss of any reason for wonder. We do, after all, on occasion – at the sight of a sentimental landscape, for instance – imagine that we sense something of the experience of seeing, of that infinite seeing that has so rapidly become finite under the law of objects, and of their categorization. At the seaside – or rather, slightly above the sea – it is not wrong to say that we catch a glimpse of infinity, since there are in fact no finite objects in the way, interfering with our view.
Celmins’ œuvre contains water like that. Images of water that would certainly appear infinite to our eyes were it not for the mercy of their format, the consolation of their deliberate restriction. Images of water in which the act of seeing would dissipate were it not for the drama of the mirror-like surface of the water shattering into a thousand wave particles. Seeing requires the resistance of the material world. And when every composition has been defaced, every gesture deleted; when there are no artificial colours left, no distortion and neither visible fear nor effort; when the ego has finally become a metaphor of expressionlessness – there remains the modest detail, a fragment of wave from the shattered water-mirror, a point of light in the infinite blackness of the galaxy, the red eye through which the fan gazes from its painting at the world.
The world – the world is the images we create of the world. Should we call Celmins’ pictures a ‘muted world’? This world does indeed seem somewhat aloof, despite the proximity of its appliances. The objects seem to be absent, not completely here, recherché, exposed memories, captured on film, which modulates every note slightly into the minor key. This gives rise to a peculiar mood. And yet this ‘muted world’ is no romantic paradigm, no motif of desire, stands for neither dreams not half-sleep. Everything is entirely deliberate. No coincidences, nothing that just occurs, that just becomes, as if all on its own.
Painting can no longer act as if it were merely a matter of realizing things, of lifting them out of their objective existence into the painted state. Rather, painting knows that the pictorial state always intervenes between the objective and the painted state, that things are not experienced otherwise than as images. And yet images do not exist only in their substantively limited form. Images refer to one another. They are always also images of images, existing in the dynamic form of their reference. Their borders are fluid. Between the borders all remains vague, the relation is one of indistinctness.
There is no law against asking what forges the various components of this work together into a series. These household appliances from the environment of a workshop, these airplane crashes and explosions at sea, the ostensibly scientific representations of the surface of the moon and the glimpse into the glowing heart of Cassiopeia: it would be wasted effort to seek their grammar. Nor is it looking and gazing that creates the connection. As a rule, after all, there is always an image intervening, a photograph, a drawing, an illustration from a magazine or newspaper. No, it has nothing to do with motions of the head. Looking is not constrained by direction.
Perhaps one might say: images are not bound together by anything, they are committed to their open borders. Is that romantic? Celmins has the answer: ‘Well, the impulse to create a work of art is somehow romantic. I don’t think there has been genuine progress in that regard, do you? I believe it’s about discoveries through effort, moments of encounter, whether voluntary or intuitive.’
Progress is directed movement in space. Genuine progress would be the rediscovery of a part of the world. Painting is the passage of time. How can there be any progress if painting is devoted to stopping time for us?