War and Remembrance

Menil presents Vija Celmins's early work.

Celmins undoubtedly witnessed similar violence firsthand in her childhood, but in the process of making the paintings, the violence became something contained and controllable for the artist. At the same time, she was spotlighting and recording it.

Several sculptures are included in the show. House #1 (1965) is a painted wooden box that looks like a house with a peaked roof for a lid and the outlines of windows and trim. Painted in black and white, one side of the box depicts crashing planes, while a hand firing a smoking gun (an image also used in the painting Gun with Hand #1) adorns the roof. The roof is actually a lid that, when removed, reveals the box's interior, which is lined with fur, à la artist Meret Oppenheim's famous teacup. Where Oppenheim's fur lining surreally subverted the purpose of the object, Celmins's lining of the box with fur creates a feeling of warm, nest-like security, a place to hide from the horror outside.

Images of contemporary violence are shown in the context of their mediating sources — TV and magazines — in the same way Celmins and most Americans experienced it.  A 1964 painting of a television set shows crashing planes on its screen. The 1965 painting of the cover of a Time magazine with images of the Watts Riots is faithfully, if somewhat softly, rendered, except, like the image of the television, it is drained of color. In these works, it is not only the image of violence but the way the image is presented that's the subject.

Image of violence: Gun with Hand #1.
Image of violence: Gun with Hand #1.
Painted from a photograph: Explosion at Sea.
Sarah Wells
Painted from a photograph: Explosion at Sea.

Location Info


The Menil Collection

1515 Sul Ross
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Art Galleries

Region: Montrose


"Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964-66"

Through February 20.

The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

This way of working from photographs and separating herself from, yet somehow more richly presenting, an image, has served Celmins well. The labor and scrutiny she puts into her works, some of which can take up to a year to execute, imbues them with presence far greater than that of their source images. Celmins has continued the black-and-white that at first was a consequence of the period images she used. It has become a kind of unifying filter for her work. Whether she paints rocks or an explosion, her images feel equally consequential.

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