Colm Toíbín on Vija Celmins

Vija Celmins: Suspended Plane, 1966, oil on canvas, 18 by 28 inches. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.


As part of the Annual Guide to Galleries, Museums and Artists (A.i.A.’s August issue), we preview the 2018-19 season of museum exhibitions worldwide. In addition to offering their own top picks, our editors asked select artists, curators, and other experts to identify the shows they are looking forward to. Here, Colm Toíbín talks about Vija Celmins.

“It is easy to misread Vija Celmins’s paintings and drawings of the sea and the night sky, or indeed her work based on desert images or cobwebs or stones, as the result of an obsession with nature, with ideas of infinity and eternity and implacability. The more you look at the work, however, in all its calm austerity, the more you realize how interested Celmins is in the materials she works with—paint and pencil and systems of printing.

“The sea and the night sky give her a structure to work with. Her job then is to manage the concentrated mark and to make the mark fit into some larger design that must seem both deliberate and random. Her work also exudes a sense that the process of its making involved an emotional risk that hits the viewer’s nervous system even as the eye admires her skill and infers the amount of visual information she left out. What is absent carries as much weight as what is included.

“Celmins is a most tactful and deliberate artist, but this does not mean that the overall image, whether viewed as a whole or studied in detail, does not mirror the mind in flux, or pure uncertainty, or a sense of the pictorial surface as essentially mysterious. It is fascinating that Celmins has worked with culture as much as nature, has painted bombers and guns, for example. Her very restlessness makes its way into every mark she sets down, and then she tempers it and sets out to control it. The tension between what is beyond her and what she can pinpoint gives her work its astonishing power.”


“Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory,” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Dec. 15, 2018–Mar. 31, 2019. 

COLM TÓIBÍN’s most recent novel is House of Names (2017).