Vija Celmins. Ocean: 7 Steps #2. 1973. Graphite on acrylic ground on paper, 11 3/4 × 98 3/8" (29.8 × 249.9 cm). Gift of Edward R. Broida. © 2020 Vija Celmins

Sinking into Vija Celmins’s Ocean: 7 Steps #2

How can a line on paper embody a feeling?
Jane Cavalier Jul 2, 2020

Meditation, for me, has always been a near-impossible task. I’d rather attempt a million other strategies for self-improvement than confront the fact that I utterly fail to control the wanderings of my mind.

When prompted to try meditating at the end of a Zoom yoga class on Monday, I did what I usually do: begrudgingly focus on my breath, in and out, and try to stay in the moment through the feeling of air entering and leaving my body. I also did something admittedly clichéd: I thought of the ocean, imagining my breaths as waves. Allowing myself to expand into the vastness of the sea, I could feel the water’s skin ripple across my eyelids. The sensation was both visual and tactile: I saw dark, heaving water and felt the prickle of its waves move across my body. Strangely, it also struck me as more of a memory than an independent thought, until I realized that what I had been envisioning was one frame from Vija Celmins’s Ocean: 7 Steps #2 (1973), a work in MoMA’s collection.

Vija Celmins. Ocean: 7 Steps #2. 1973

Vija Celmins. Ocean: 7 Steps #2. 1973

Ocean: 7 Steps #2 is a running sequence of seven variations on the same image. From left to right, the ocean scene is drawn with an increasingly soft pencil, creating a grayscale as the image shifts from lighter to darker. Celmins has repeatedly described her Ocean drawings (there are many, as it’s a subject she’s returned to throughout her career) in terms of the marriage of her medium (graphite) and its support (paper): “with individual marks that break up the surface and then build up into a whole.” Like drops of water joining and dissipating across an ocean’s surface, the rich interplay of lines and gradients create a texture through which they appear to merge with the thing they’re describing. Treating graphite and paper as inextricable, Celmins creates a relationship between the two that forms an ongoing conversation, as if texture and tonality could speak a language of their own.

Celmins worked from a photograph she took of the ocean, calling it an “alternative subject” of her work. Of her desire to draw from photographs, Celmins has said, “What I wanted was to pick an image that just described a surface, and to document that image—place it out there, without any feeling…. I wanted to remove myself and leave something, a sensibility.” Emphasizing the process of making over the content of an image, Celmins would spend at least three weeks drawing a single ocean. With an approach equal parts meditative and devotional, she patiently transcribed each ripple from the photographic emulsion with graphite, throwing away sheets with imperfections instead of using an eraser. Her process is paralleled by the combination of the infinite and the present in her subject matter: the unfolding timelessness of the ocean and the thin slice into time captured by a photograph. With no horizon, no shore, and no part more important than the other, Celmins’s ocean drawings open an expansive view not only onto her subjects—the ocean and the photographic surface—but also onto the interactions of her materials.

How can a line on paper embody a feeling, and also create one through its interactions with others?
Jane Cavalier

“Some people think that I just sit down and copy the photograph. It is precisely that I reinvent it in other terms,” Celmins once said. This difference between representation and reinvention is, for me, discernible not so much as a visual fact but as a tactile and temporal one. Looking happens over time and across space, and this work certainly necessitates slow looking. Unfolding as a sequence, Ocean: 7 Steps #2 asks our eyes to gradually register the shift from one gradient to the next across its seven frames. What holds me in this drawing, and why I think I remembered it during my botched attempt at meditation, is how the interaction of its materials—graphite and paper—is not just seen but felt. What changes is the hardness and softness of graphite. Each frame presents a new atmosphere, or a new language of feeling, that emerges with the transformation of drawing’s terms. This is a textural sensation and, as such, it unfolds in a continuous present tense—forcing me to “be here now” (like my hippie father would say) as I contemplate the multivalent possibilities of a single mark in Celmins’s work: How can a line on paper embody a feeling, and also create one through its interactions with others?

Perhaps it’s my own form of meditation, but when I now consider Ocean: 7 Steps #2, I think about how Celmins pushes drawing to its limits, allowing us to feel its making. The sensation of two-dimensional space breaking and churning through her graphite lines keeps me in the moment. The surface, a forever present.