En tension (Tension-Letting go-Tension). Pistol, de Vija Celmins

(Extract of the monograph Vija Celmins (GB))

Vija Celmins, Pistol, huile sur toile, 1964 (Tous droits réservés)Vija Celmins, Pistol, huile sur toile, 1964 (Tous droits réservés)
Making art is really a shot in the dark, in which you don’t really know what is going to happen. And you don’t know whether it will work, you don’t know whether anyone is going to respond to it. Vija Celmins1

He has just pulled the trigger. Arm outstretched, he is pointing the still-hot pistol. No movement. Only silence. The smoke like a motionless cloud suspended in space. Just these three elements painted on a gray ground? Let us look closer. The smoke escapes from the pistol as a slight movement. One would say that the action is not really completed: it lingers in the air, intrudes on it.

Painted in 1964, Pistol is far from Vija Celmins’ first picture. Since moving to Los Angeles two years earlier she had been painting intensely. Starting with big abstract canvases, then pictures of the different objects in her studio, which was when she painted several variations on the pistol theme: Gun with Hand #1, Gun with Hand #2 and Hand Holding a Firing Gun, which shows the bullet’s trajectory at the very moment when the gun is fired.
Once again this is all there is to see; and yet one cannot help dwelling on the image, gripped in the distinctive time frame of these representations of pistols and gunshots that plunge us into the contemplation and immobility specific to painting, while at the same time describing an action directly opposed to the immobility of the canvas.
In that same year of 1964 Celmins showed Heater and Fan at the Dickson Art Center at the University of California de Los Angeles (UCLA) as part of her Master of Arts Exhibition. These are paintings of ramshackle stuff from her studio—a salvaged radiator, a fan that’s run out of puff—set against a neutral backdrop. Alone on the canvas, the object stares back at the viewer contemplating it: face to face, they share a common space, both of them situated in the silent world of the painting. These works speak of something troubling and indefinable, of the « substantive magic2 » perceived by one critic who had visited the exhibition.
Let us take a close look. Are these electrical appliances on the verge of breaking down? They are not exactly at the end of their tether and are apparently switched on: except that one isn’t heating and the other isn’t cooling. There is something else going on. The fan is not blowing air, but its blades seem to be turning; while the radiator, without producing any heat, is glowing radiantly in the half-light3.

When I first met Vija Celmins in New York in 1999 she lent me the  preparatory notes for her Master of Arts dissertation Record of Creative Work in the Field of Painting, written in 19644. In it I read, « I’m haunted by the urge to paint skies on everything. Maybe to force a really endless space into a closed form (May 18, 1964)5. »  And also, « I constantly have to resituate my sensibility and my sense of order. Each time things become more compact. Each time I eliminate a  little more useless space. Maybe that sets up a tension. (January 25, 1964)6 « .
I wondered what she meant by « tension », a word that cropped up regularly in our later conversations as well as in various. interviews. And what did she mean by « sensibility and sense of order »?
A little further on she wrote, « For me, crystallizing just one object on a canvas is a pleasure, a magical activity. I’ve tried to paint skillfully , but also with a certain detachment, so that the object finds its own relationship with the medium. When you’re the only one pulling the strings things can sometimes take an unexpected turn7 » This crystallization is both the object’s transition to its representation, to its status as image, and the relationship that forms between the image and the surface of the canvas. « Maybe, » she adds, « I’m trying to connect the images to the surface so as to discover their intrinsic quality (February 20, 1964). » More than once she describes her interest in the painted surface and the object represented, her attempts to set the object in the picture plane and make the canvas an active surface, and to dynamize the painting. She even thought of buying a paint gun, but then gave up the idea in favor of a more complex method. « Today for the first time I tried to describe the action of steam, while at the same time minimizing the activity in the rest of the picture. The result is a pleasant sense of atmosphere. I’ll do it again. (April 18, 1964) 8. »
In the same way that she decided against the paint gun, she rejected action painting, as if in search of an alternative to gesture and expressiveness. In her canvases unpredictably functioning objects animate the picture surface; the suspended gesture of a gun being fired disturbs the atmosphere. And when the pistol reappears in Revolver in 1968, there is no more action at all: the weapon is shown laid on a piece of paper, menacingly, like some dormant danger. The gun and the crumpled paper are drawn with great precision, while the deliberately clumsy cutting-out signals the passage of a hand: everything is finely represented. The work seems to be the result of a long  process of development finally immobilized on the support. As with Fan and Heater we are given hardly the barest glimpse of the emotion the image contains, except in the tiny, almost invisible surface traces, the velvety texture, and the slight quiverings. An observant gaze picks up the signs of this work process: a vibrant touch, painting driven by the paint itself and by its subject.  And yet nothing moves. As if the painting were activated within all its components, while at the same time retaining its intrinsic, essential immobility. In a state of tension. (…)

©DDH. Translation: ©John Tittensor, 2014

 


1« In Conversation: Vija Celmins with Phong Bui » Brooklyn Rail, June 3, 2010, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2010/06/art/vija-celmins-with-phong-bui
2 In Arts of December 1964 Rosalind G. Wholden wrote, « The painter’s skill recalls Jasper Johns, but she uses it less for plasticity than as the means of substantive magic. » The remark is also quoted in  Ann Ayres, « Impure Pop: L.A. Painting in the Sixties », in L.A. Pop in the Sixties, exh. cat. Newport Beach: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1989, p. 75.
3 Here I have borrowed an expression from the artist, taken from the notes for her dissertation Record of Creative Work in the Field of Painting, excerpts from which I trarnslated and included in my postgraduate Research Dissertation Vija Celmins et les avant-gardes américaines, influences et singularités, at the Ecole du Louvre, 2004, p 330 (Vija Celmins, du processus créatif dans le domaine de la peinture, 1964 (excerpts)).
4 This first meeting took part in the context of the writing of my dissertation for the Ecole du Louvre, defended in 2004.
5 Vija Celmins in Vija Celmins, du processus créatif dans le domaine de la peinture, 1964 (excerpts) op.cit., p 331.
6 Ibid., p 328.
7 in Vija Celmins, du processus créatif dans le domaine de la peinture, 1964 (extraits) op.cit., p 329.
8 Ibid., p 330.