“A spider’s—or a painter’s—fleeting stab at perfection is a negligible stitch in an unbounded fabric. Its only significance lies in our own momentary, mortal gaze as we reckon with eternity.” — Peter Schjeldahl
It is summertime in the early aughts, late evening. I am in New York City, and I’m riding my 1971 Schwinn Stardust bike on a sidewalk deep in the Chelsea Art district. There are two people ahead walking arm-in-arm. I ride past them wearing jeans, heels, and my hand-stitched shirt and look at them as I glide by. The singer Björk leans toward me and says, “I like your bike.” I smile and say, “Thank you. I like your dress.”
This was the mood of that time, and so many stories like this abound for Stardust and me. It was this bike, bought for me by my friend Paul and approved by Björk, that I rode all over New York City: Uptown, Downtown, and all-around town. Always in those heels and hand-sewn shirts—doubling friends, alone at night, carrying fabric, taking pictures with my Pentax 35mm, and just wandering and wayfinding through the vast caverns of the city. It was a time of great inspiration and good work in the trajectory of my life and career. It was the beginning of Project Alabama and what was later to become Alabama Chanin.
Natalie’s Pentax 35mm film contact sheet; from top left: “Stardust”, “Natalie in the Mirror at Hotel Chelsea”, “Interior Room View at Hotel Chelsea”, “Looking Out the Window at Hotel Chelsea”, and “Interview Room View with Natalie at Hotel Chelsea”, Spring 2000 by Natalie Chanin.
On one of these adventures with Stardust, two decades ago, I first encountered the work of Vija Celmins (pronounced VEE-ya SELL-muns). In my mind, it was a beautiful spring day. I was not in a hurry, slipping in and out of galleries that lazy afternoon. I walk into a gallery where there are what I perceive to be paintings of water, only to discover that they are meticulously crafted pencil drawings. Calvin Tomkins writes in his 2019 article for The New Yorker, “What makes her images so alive is the consummate craftsmanship that goes into them—the hand, which knows things that the mind does not.”
“Untitled (Big Sea #1)“, 1969 by Vija Celmins from Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, 2018 by Ian Alteveer for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Yale University Press (pages 82–83).
“What makes her images so alive is the consummate craftsmanship that goes into them—the hand, which knows things that the mind does not.”– Calvin Tomkins from “Vija Celmins’ Surface Matters” for The New Yorker, August 26, 2019
It is this craftsmanship and miraculous stillness that strike me that afternoon. I’m awestruck by the drawings of water that are, in person, more than water. In memory, I wanted to call them small waves, but they aren’t waves. The drawings are the essence of water captured in motion, captured in a motion of quiet solitude and stillness. I felt all of this in an instant and have carried it with me all these years. However, after a day of bike riding, wayfinding, and looking that day, I moved through the gallery too quickly; I looked too fast. My senses were full. There was just not enough space for the essence of water in that moment, and I’ve often regretted not having taken more time.
This was well before the era when, smartphones in hand, we began snapping pictures of everything we see—which is, perhaps, what makes this memory so vibrant. Over the years, I’ve thought so often of this show and that afternoon and I long regretted not purchasing a catalog or taking one of the free cards that describe the artist and show. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have had the money for a catalog that day even if I had wanted it. It was the memory of a moment that has stayed with me all these years.
“Untitled (Ocean Steps #2)“, 1973 by Vija Celmins from Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, 2018 by Ian Alteveer for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Yale University Press (pages 94–96).
Recently, when thinking about a new collection, inspired by Rinne Allen’s photograph titled, “Wayfinding,” I was reminded of my encounter with Vija Celmins, a similar encounter with Lee Bontecou, and the idea of water. The mind is a circuitous thing, and the more I pondered these ideas and memories, the more these women—and their work—connected.
“Wayfinding”, 2017 by Rinne Allen.
“We would make a circle, and never reach a shore at all, if there were a vortex, I thought, and we would be drawn down into the darker world, where other sounds would pour into our ears until we seemed to find songs in them, and the sight of water would invade our eyes, and the taste of water would invade our bowels and unstring our bones, and we would know the seasons and customs of the place as if there were no others.”Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping: A Novel
Rinne Allen’s photography, like Marilynne Robinson’s text above, is poetry. Rinne is a dear friend to me and, over the years, we’ve spent so much time talking and thinking about residency and space for solitude to create essential work. When I look at her “Wayfinding” picture, it is as if I am on that boat, gliding over the water, alone with my head, heart, and dreams. It makes me pause and center—which is good for my soul these days.
I didn’t get to see the more recent Vija Clemins show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2019. But, I think that had I been able to stand before these drawings, I would have had this exact same sense of being alone with head, heart, and dreams. This description from Calvin Tomkins makes me wish I’d taken a plane—back when we didn’t think twice about doing such things:
“What struck me, seeing [the ocean drawings] together, was their variety. Although in a sense they were all the same—gray images of water, never a real disturbance or a wave—each had its own character, and held its own in galleries with eighteen-foot-high ceilings.”
“Untitled (Cassiopeia)”; Right: “Untitled (Desert)”, 1973 by Vija Celmins from Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, 2018 by Ian Alteveer for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Yale University Press (pages 94–96).
I recently came across a Peter Schjeldahl review of the Clemins exhibition I stumbled upon that day with Stardust. Written for the June 4, 2001, issue of The New Yorker and titled, “Dark Star: The intimate grandeur of Vija Celmins, ” he wrote:
“If I were stranded on a desert island and could have only one contemporary art work, it would be a picture of a starry sky, a spiderweb, or a choppy ocean by Vija Celmins—a smallish painting, drawing, or print that is sombre, tingling with intelligence, and very pure. I imagine that the work’s charge of obdurate consciousness would give my sanity a fighting chance against the island’s lonely nights, insect industry, and engirdling, unquiet waters.”
Left: Bontecou’s studio in Wooster Street, New York, 1963; Right: Lee Bontecou in Wooster Street, New York, 1963; Furthermost Right: “Untitled“, 1959 by Lee Bontecou from Lee Bontecou, 2017 by Benno Tempel, Laura Stamps, Jeremy Melius, and Joan Banach (pages 26-27).
Like Lee Bontecou, who notably removed herself from the art world, Vija Celmins is known for keeping a low profile and producing relatively few works over the trajectory of her life and career. I have to admit that this idea of focused work, away from the onslaught of the constant news cycles and endless social media, appeals to me these days—even if only for a moment. Perhaps this is why the work of these three incredible women speak to this incredible stillness in my heart and circle around and around in my head.
I curated our Marine collection inspired by these women and their works. This is not to say that this curation in any way approaches the brilliance of their work. But, perhaps, it’s enough for this moment that we find inspiration to create the necessary stillness to become a wayfinder in this crazy, crazy world we are currently living.
Left: “Natalie and Maggie at the Museum of Modern Art’s Björk Retrospective”, March 2015; Right: Still of Björk in “Big Time Sensuality”, 1993 by Björk from “Big Time Sensuality” directed by Chris Cunningham.
P.S.: I took my daughter Maggie to the Museum of Modern Art for the first time in March of 2015 when she had just turned nine years old. The Björk exhibition had recently opened and my favorite music video, “Big Time Sensuality”, by Stéphane Sednaoui, was playing in constant loop, three stories high and visible through a slender window. We stood there for what seemed an hour watching Björk dance through the caverns of New York City as I whispered to Maggie stories about Stardust and Björk and wayfinding through these streets before she was born.
Watch this interview with Björk and Stéphane Sednaoui:
P.S.S.: Did you know if you subscribe to The New Yorker, you have access to their archive as flipbooks? Here you can find the June 4, 2001, issue with the article by Peter Schjeldahl and, strangely, includes a poem titled, “Quarantine,” by Eavan Boland.
Lead image from left: “Untitled (Big Sea #1)“, 1969 by Vija Celmins from Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, 2018 by Ian Alteveer for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Yale University Press (pages 82–83); “Vija Celmins in her studio”, 1966. Photographed by Tony Berlant via The Getty Center; “Wayfinding”, 2017 by Rinne Allen; From Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, 2018 by Ian Alteveer for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Yale University Press (pages 194-195); Lee Bontecou in her studio from Lee Bontecou, 2017 by Benno Tempel, Laura Stamps, Jeremy Melius, and Joan Banach (pages 134-135).