Vija Celmins (b. 1939) was born in Riga, Latvia. With her family, she fled Riga in 1944, spending her childhood as a refugee in both the Eastern and Western sectors of war-ravaged Germany, before coming to the U.S. with the help of Church World Service. The family settled in Indianapolis where her father resumed his work as a builder of houses. Vija lived in Indianapolis until graduating from art school. After a summer session at Yale, she moved to Los Angeles with a scholarship for graduate studies at UCLA, receiving an M.F.A. there in 1965. Celmins has taught at the University of California, Irvine.
Early in her career Celmins abandoned the Abstract-Expressionist style of her student days to develop a series of life-size depictions of objects in her studio, literally teaching herself to paint from a model again. Eventually she made the transition from studio-based to outer-world subjects, exploring the violence and disorder of remembered imagery from her childhood during World War II. As she tempered her apocalyptic vision, she began to work from photographs in her painting, and to develop wooden sculptures painted in the trompe-l'oeil tradition. At about the same time she produced a series of small graphite drawings on paper, considered preludes to her mature work.
Beginning in about 1970, Celmins worked in graphite, concentrating on photographically derived pictures of rippling ocean surfaces, starry night skies and flat patches of stony ground. Having abandoned painting in the 1960s she returned to paint in the 1980s, still using photographic sources. Gerard Haggerty writes in Art in America, March, 1989: ". . . what Celmins renders with exquisite care are not things, but forms and patterns of energy: tides, celestial gravity, evaporation, erosion. Whereas photos fracture the moment, these paintings condense time. It is not just that they are built, layer upon layer, in a time-consuming process, though this commitment on the artist's art is obviously great. The small size of these paintings makes it seem as if Celmins were concerned with the artful placement of every molecule of paint. In fact, the final skin of oil paint is the accumulation of many layers that have been painted, sanded down, and repainted. Her resonant darks and the soft coronas around her stars are a product of this relentless repainting. The resulting sense of space is extremely convincing. The subjects Celmins chooses to paint--a star-filled quadrant of the cosmos, where distance is measured in terms of light-years, or a fragment of the endless sea, . . . all evoke infinity."
In a February, 1989 review in Artforum, Dennis Cooper writes, "Celmins is one of those rare artists who labors long over each of her relatively small paintings and drawings, sometimes for up to a year. As a result, her output is small, her exhibitions infrequent. . . . Celmins' preference for scenery that is untrammeled and untouchable gives her paintings a quality of intense and enviable solitude."
A review of Celmins' 1993 retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Musuem of American Art in New York prompted this comment in the October Art in America magazine, ". . . we are left with a sense of the artist's authority, her power of influence on two coasts, and her relentless quest for meaning and integrity."
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