Teaching with Contemporary Art

Transcendent: Vija Celmins and Kimsooja

Vija Celmins, "Untitled (Big Sea #1)," 1969. Graphite on acrylic ground on paper, 34 1/8 x 45 1/4 inches. Private collection. Courtesy McKee Gallery, New York.

Recently I was engaged in a little debate about whether contemporary art can truly be transcendent — taking us beyond the range of normal perception to some place else, some place free from the constraints of the material world. While I immediately thought of Season 5 artist, Kimsooja, and her ability to highlight the artistic context in everyday activities (sewing, cleaning, decorating, etc.), I also thought about the repetitive nature of her work and how repetition is one path to transcendence that many other artists most certainly incorporate. One of these artists, Vija Celmins, is featured in Season 2 and utilizes repetition in her seascapes and night skies. They are meticulously drawn and painted to the point that the viewer isn’t looking at a picture as much as they are looking into one. And when you look close enough, similar to the experience thousands of students have when really seeing a painting by George Seurat or Chuck Close, you go someplace else; you see beyond what the picture is.

I try to make a piece that’s strong and thorough and doesn’t jump off the paper. It’s neither ocean nor a piece of paper. It becomes a third thing.   

— Vija Celmins

Any teacher that has experienced the hum of fluorescent lights and a roomful of students engaged to the point that you can actually hear ideas being scratched into paper or canvas has experienced another kind of transcendent moment. These are the times we feel that “buzz” of work and the rhythm of not necessarily moving through the room, but of the room moving through us, through our own energy and the work we’re facilitating. It’s our job to create spaces for these kinds of moments where students become immersed in the ideas they are shaping and shaping them slowly, without rushing, but with a sense of urgency.


  1. Amriel Simpson says:

    there is a piece in the Portland Art Museum that reminds me of this, although it was done in the late 1800s by William Trost Richards of the Hudson River School, called “Marine” or something equally minimalistic and ocean-related ~Amriel

  2. Audrey Tran says:

    Thanks for pinpointing-so well, and beautifully-a thought process that I’ve almost completely forgotten. It’s been too long since I’ve worked on paper.

  3. Joe Fusaro says:

    Thank you, Audrey and Amriel! I enjoyed writing this particular post because it brought me closer to both of these artists. The more I learn about them, the more I become immersed in wanting to explore even further how these artists, as well as others, create work that is truly transcendent.

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