Vija Celmins, Arshile Gorky and some razor blades
If you've been to the Geffen Contemporary to see the Museum of Contemporary Art's 30th anniversary exhibition in the last seven months, then you've seen Vija Celmin's exquisite 1992 painting "Night Sky #4." Hanging on the front wall at the entry, it's among the first works one encounters.
That makes poetic sense for the show that follows, given the painting's subject. A chunk of an inky black sky is inflected with tiny white stars hovering in deep space. Celmins creates an up-close infinity where the imagination can dream, as the remote night sky has done for humanity since time immemorial.
Celmins' work is not like Van Gogh's roiling 1889 vision of "The Starry Night," with its flame-like cypress trees rising into a swirling, ecstatic sky. Her starry night is quiet, contemplative. The darkness seems to breathe. And unless one takes the time to slow down and look it's easy to miss, given the seeming modesty of the velvety picture.When you do look, you may find yourself wondering how Celmins made what soon develops into a spellbinding picture. In a recent interview with the Brooklyn Rail, the artist explained the complicated, time-consuming process. She also talked about the painting's relationship to Arshile Gorky's very different figurative painting, "The Artist and his Mother" (1926-36). Coincidentally, that work is currently installed at MOCA Grand Avenue as part of the newly opened exhibition, "Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective."
Here's the relevant portion of Celmins' recent conversation with the Brooklyn Rail, held in conjunction with her exhibition of new paintings, sculptures and prints at New York's David McKee Gallery:
Rail: About the night sky paintings, I always wanted to ask you, with all of the subtleties of gray tones embedded in the white stars and the black sky, how do you build up the surface while controlling the balance of tones?
Celmins: Well, the rather boring technique is this: what I do is I first draw in a pattern that breaks the surface, and then I draw the different sizes of circles for the stars. Next, with a small sable brush, I apply a tiny drop of liquid rubber; it hardens and I build up to a desirable thickness. I then paint different layers of ivory blacks that have been mixed with burnt umber, ultramarine blue, and sometimes with a bit of white. And I use alkyd, which takes about two days to dry, and once it’s dry, I then take off the little rubber bumps, which create those little holes with various kinds of white, which is mixed with a little bit of cerulean blue, and sometimes with raw umber or yellow ochre.
Rail: What kind of white?
Celmins: A combination of titanium and zinc white. And I keep filling those holes until they come up to the same level as the black surface.
Rail: That’s intense.
Celmins: And I often sand it a little, so that the whole surface is totally uniform, flat, and has very tight skin.
Rail: Which reminds me of the silky smooth surface of Gorky’s masterpiece “The Artist and His Mother” ... at the Whitney.
Celmins: I love that painting. I don’t know how he gets that beautiful surface.
Rail: I think he used razor blades to scrape off any excess of paint in each layer he painted.
Celmins: I have also used razor blades and sand paper on my painting.
-- Christopher Knight
Follow me @twitter.com/KnightLATPhoto: Vija Celmins, "Night Sky #4," 1992, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 30 3/4 x 37 3/4 in., gift of the Lannan Foundation. Credit: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles