Press Office Exhibition

SFMOMA Announces Major Vija Celmins Retrospective Spanning More Than Five Decades

Exhibition Represents the Artist’s First Retrospective in 25 Years

Released: July 24, 2018 · Download (256.6 KB PDF)

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Ocean), 1977; graphite on acrylic ground on paper; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Alfred M. Esberg; © Vija Celmins; photo: Don Ross, courtesy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory

December 15, 2018–March 31, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (July 24, 2018) — Long admired for her meticulous renderings of natural imagery, including ocean waves, desert floors and night skies, artist Vija Celmins has created paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints for more than five decades. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presents the global debut of Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory — the first North American retrospective of the artist’s work in 25 years — on view at the museum from December 15, 2018, through March 31, 2019.

Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory features nearly 150 works spanning the breadth of Celmins’ career from the 1960s to the present. Organized in loose chronological order by subject, it presents a wide variety of media, including paintings, drawings in graphite and charcoal and sculptures.

Celmins began her career in Los Angeles, where she became one of the rare 1960s female artists to be recognized by her male peers and develop significant standing. In the early 1980s she moved to New York, and is one of few figures to have been embraced by the art communities on both coasts. A singular artist, Celmins has never adhered to one particular theoretical framework, nor aligned herself with a movement or close association with any group of artists. Her work is remarkable for its exceptional craftsmanship and its probing reinterpretations of the relationship between representation and reality.

“For more than 50 years, Celmins has sustained an extraordinary career pursuing a unique vision using familiar subjects as a foundation for an intensive studio practice and exquisite, intimate compositions,” said Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA and lead exhibition curator. “This exhibition is an exciting culmination of more than 10 years working closely with the artist.”

several stones on a flat plane, Vija Celmins
Vija Celmins, To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI, 1977–82; eleven stones and eleven made objects (bronze and acrylic paint); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Edward R. Broida in honor of David and Renee McKee; © Vija Celmins; photo: courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

The exhibition — which later travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada, and The Met Breuer, New York — features Celmins’ “re-descriptions” of the physical world, which are created through a demanding and deliberative artistic process. Immersive galleries begin with a group of Celmins’ studio still life paintings that first established the artist’s reputation. Other highlights include a gallery of Celmins’ iconic drawings of oceans tracing the 10 years she devoted to this subject from 1968 to 1977; and another featuring all five paintings the artist created depicting World War II fighter planes. Also included are two galleries dedicated to images of the night sky — one for paintings and one for drawings — from the late 1980s to 2001, with recent paintings and drawings of both subjects concluding the exhibition. Key sculptures shown in the presentation include Comb (1969–70), Blackboard Tableau #1 (2007–10) and To Fix the Image in Memory I–XI, (1977-82), from which the exhibition subtitle is taken. Comprised of 11 pairs of found stones and their bronze casts whose surfaces were fastidiously painted, this work was created over the course of five years, to re-describe the original stones.

About Vija Celmins

Born in Riga, Latvia, Vija Celmins fled the country with her family near the end of World War II before the Soviet occupation. They lived in refugee camps in Germany until immigrating to Indianapolis in 1948. Celmins studied art at the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University and attended a summer session at Yale University before entering the MFA program at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1962. She quickly gained recognition for her first sustained body of work, painting each object in her Venice Beach studio. This series was followed by paintings and drawings of historical and contemporary subjects taken from newspaper and magazine reproductions and from her own photography.

Celmins’ most widely recognized bodies of work are her detailed drawing compositions of the ocean developed in the late 1960s, followed by her series of drawings of the desert floor and galaxies. After relocating to New York in the early 1980s, the artist turned again to painting, which could sustain saturated surfaces built from numerous layers and allowed her to slightly enlarge the scale of her work. In the 1990s, she created charcoal drawings in tandem with her paintings. Over the past 20 years, she has developed a wider and more diverse range of subjects, but also has revisited motifs from throughout her career.

In 1992, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia organized the first retrospective of her work; she has also been presented in solo exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the Menil Collection, Houston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Celmins was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996 and received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997.

Other Venues and Dates

Art Gallery of Ontario: May 4, 2019, through August 4, 2019

The Met Breuer, New York: September 24, 2019, through January 12, 2020


Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory is co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition is co-curated by Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, and Ian Alteveer, Aaron I. Fleischman Curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met, with Nancy Lim, Assistant Curator, SFMOMA, and Meredith A. Brown, Research Associate, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Met.


Major support for Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory is provided by the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund. Generous support is provided by the Barbara and Gerson Bakar Foundation, the Gerson Bakar Foundation, Gay-Lynn and Robert Blanding, Janine and J. Tomilson Hill, Marguerite Steed Hoffman, Agnes and Edward Lee, Susan and Larry Marx, Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg, Sheri and Paul Siegel, and Pat Wilson. Additional support is provided by Alka and Ravin Agrawal.

Research for the exhibition was supported in part by SFMOMA's Artist Initiative, which is generously funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory is accompanied by a 272-page catalogue featuring approximately 210 illustrations and contributions from Ian Alteveer, Meredith A. Brown, Briony Fer, Russell Ferguson, Gary Garrels, Suzanne Hudson, Frances Jacobus-Parker and Nancy Lim. The catalogue is edited by Gary Garrels and published by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Hours and Admission

Open Friday–Tuesday 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Thursday 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Closed Wednesday. Holiday hours: Open December 24 and December 31, 2018 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; open Wednesday, December 26, 2018 and Wednesday January 2, 2019 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; closed December 25, 2018.

Private guided tours and group discounts for Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory are available through the SFMOMA Group Sales team. Tours are one hour in length and are not included with museum admission. Tours must be booked at least two weeks in advance. For more information or to submit an inquiry, please visit