In the early 1960s, Celmins began making paintings of objects in her studio: lamps, a hot plate, an eraser, even the empty six-cylinder revolver a friend had left with her for safekeeping. Her starting point for this work was a series of photographs she took of another friend posing with the revolver. Those pictures captured a moment of potential—the trigger might be pulled—but the painting instead shows the moment after a loaded gun has been fired, depicting the smoke that fills the air after a bullet has been discharged. This shift infuses the stark, deadpan image with narrative, inviting questions about the scene beyond the painting’s frame.
“This was one of the first paintings I did that has a touch of violence,” Celmins has recalled of Gun with Hand #1. She soon turned to imagery of warplanes, burning houses, and explosions, basing her next series of works on photographs she found in books and magazines. Made in the late 1960s, during the height of the Vietnam War, these works conjure Celmins’s experience of growing up in Germany and Latvia during World War II. In the decades since, Celmins has continued to represent the world around her but has shifted to natural imagery: working across mediums, she renders subjects such as night skies and oceans with a precision and exquisite sensitivity to detail that are the hallmarks of her art.
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)