Vija Celmins
Suspended Plane, 1966

Based on a found photograph of a World War II American B-26 bomber, Celmins’s haunting painting is cool and detached, yet highly charged with personal subject matter. The artist, who fled her native Latvia during World War II and subsequently immigrated to the United States, describes this painting as being “colored by the chaos of my early childhood in the war.” Not insignificantly, she painted the bomber during the Vietnam War.

Suspended Plane is also significant because it is among the earliest examples of Celmins’s career-long practice of painting from photographs. This method inserts a layer of distance between artist and canvas, and appealed to Celmins as a more authentic way of painting than the then-dominant, and seemingly exhausted, model of Abstract Expressionism. The work, marked by a remarkable degree of verisimilitude, even retains the original photograph’s signs of aging.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Suspended Plane
Artist name
Vija Celmins
Date created
oil on canvas
18 × 28 in. (45.7 × 71.1 cm)
Date acquired
Collection SFMOMA
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase, by exchange, through the bequest of Elise S. Haas
© Vija Celmins
Permanent URL
Artwork status
On view on floor 5 as part of Afterimages: Echoes of the 1960s in the Fisher and SFMOMA Collections

Audio Stories

Celmins on painting her childhood memories of war

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Vija Celmins was raised in a German family. They were displaced as refugees during World War Two, living first in Latvia before eventually settling in the Midwestern United States. She painted this plane in the mid-1960s, after she had finished her graduate studies. Even though it was done years later, it clearly reflects very personal and very haunting memories of that time. Here’s Vija Celmins:



You know when I was little, I didn’t think of the War as anything bad, I was unconscious then too. I didn’t know. You know I thought everybody lived like this. And I had gone through some experiences which must have like stayed in my little body there and kind of came out when I was like searching for images, searching for little tones that I could hit, searching for someplace to connect.

And I collected a lot of little war images and I began to paint them. I had a lot of airplanes. I used to like airplanes probably because when I was little I heard many planes above me, but I also liked the idea of flying.

I like the fact that it’s a very still painting, but yet it has like indicated movement. Actually the propellers on this plane have stopped, and they’re throwing out things out of the back, you see.

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