Arts Writer Jori Finkel on Vija Celmins
The February 23, 2014 Modern Art & Design Auction will feature a rare and important Vija Celmins painting from 1964, Untitled (Ham Hock), being sold by the original owner.
To commemorate this incredible painting, arts writer Jori Finkel offers further insight into this early period in Celmins’ career.
Untitled (Ham Hock) (1964), Vija Celmins
Jori Finkel on Vija Celmins’ Untitled (Ham Hock) (1964)
In her fleshy painting of a ham hock from 1964, Vija Celmins takes on a familiar subject from art history: raw meat. It’s a classic test of a painter’s powers: How lifelike can the artist render animal muscle, fat, and other tissues?
The ham hock (or shank, as the same cut is sometimes known) sits on an off-white ceramic plate, the pig gristle glistening and its joint extending beyond the rim of the plate. The color scheme is simple and powerful: burgundies and whites against a taupe background.
But Celmins’ image is just as powerful for what it leaves out. Where is the evidence of a butcher’s shop or stall that we see in so many 16th-century Dutch still lifes? Where are the meat hooks and butchers’ counters that show up in dense paintings by Beuckelaer or Aertsen?
Likewise, you will not find any of the copper pots, ceramic jugs, or shiny knives that Old Masters like Chardin and French Impressionists later on would use to establish a domestic setting. We don’t even get a table, as the plate floats in the center of the composition.
The style is deliberately plain too – a rejection of the attention-getting brushstrokes and paint drips that defined Abstract Expressionism, making this flatly realistic, life-sized image of meat an unlikely sort of palate cleanser for Celmins during an important year in the development of her work.
Detail of signature, Untitled (Ham Hock) (1964), Vija Celmins
In 1962, at age 25, Celmins enrolled in the M.F.A. program at UCLA and set herself up in a studio at 701 Venice Boulevard. In interviews since, she described her time in California as a weirdly sunny excursion for someone born in Latvia, raised in Indiana, and more at home in shades of gray.
This early period in California also represented a turning point in which she managed to shrug off the gestural Abstract Expressionist vocabulary that had influenced her and dominated so much painting of the time, replacing it with the flat, deliberately nondescript sort of representational painting.
She described this shift in an interview published as part of her M.F.A. thesis for UCLA, dated June 3, 1965. “I thought struggling and interacting with the painting was necessary? that is to say I put down a stroke, a mark, reacted to it, allowed it to act upon me, and went on from there until I had exhausted myself and the possibilities. The painting remained a battlefield, a symbol of my involvement.
Feeling burdened by this Abstract Expressionist influence, she soon abandoned painting altogether, drawing landscapes for a time. Then, a breakthrough: “When I began painting again, I decided I would do the very barest thing that I could do, I would SEE what it was I was doing, and I would stop when that one thing began to come to life. There was less concern for the final form the painting was to take. Instead I concentrated on my ability to perceive and organize my perceptions into an image. I kept the paint-ground relationship in my mind and concentrated on projecting the image. I found I was doing the simplest forms, simplest compositions…using the most limited palette but making choices that mattered.”
“I remembered kind of feeling the joy of being able to paint anything,” she later said about this period.
Her subjects in 1964 ranged from everyday foods like soup, meat, and eggs to objects found in her studio like a lamp, space heater, and a gun on loan from a friend. (MoMA now owns the smoking gun painting.) These objects paved the way for the so-called “disaster” paintings inspired by larger historical events like the 1965 Watts Riots.
Throughout this period, her style remains quasi-photographic, realistic without a great attempt at depth or perspective – a reminder that several art critics identified the emerging (and surprisingly varied) art movement of the time as “New Realism” before settling on the term “Pop Art.”
New Realism in Celmins’ hands could also be called literalism: communicating the thing-ness of a thing itself. Each artwork is an object. Each object is an artwork.
A ham hock is a ham hock is a ham hock, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, who had a lot to say about ham or really liked the word, or both. (As in this semi-inscrutable line: “Suppose, suppose a tremble, a ham, a little mouth told to wheeze more and a religion a reign of a pea racket that makes a load register and passes best.”)
“Things that exist exist, and everything is on their side…Everything is equal, just existing,” to quote Donald Judd. He was writing about Claes Oldenburg in the year 1964.
Untitled (Ham Hock)
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated verso
Canvas: 18″ x 18″; Frame: 18.5″ x 18.5″
LAMA would like to thank the artist for her assistance in cataloguing this work
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist, 1964)
Estimate: $400,000 – $600,000