Vija Celmins

Untitled (Irregular Desert), 1973, Graphite on synthetic polymer ground on paper, 30.5 x 38.1 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Edward R. Broida, 678.2005, © Vija Celmins / Matthew Marks Gallery; Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

A Landscape of Desolation

Commentary by Jennifer Sliwka

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Read by Jennifer Sliwka

Joel describes the drought, the withering of the crops and trees, and the subsequent famine at length in an effort to mobilise the indifferent to repentance.

In his commentary on this passage, the fifth-century theologian Theodoret of Cyrus attributed the cause of the land’s infertility to the lawlessness of the people who ‘confounded joy’ and whose happiness, therefore, withered like the dried crops. Accordingly, the barren landscape described in Joel might equally be associated with a psychological or spiritual desolation.

This photo-realistic drawing of a rocky desert by Vija Celmins, a Latvian-American artist known for her paintings and drawings of natural environments, helps us imagine the state of the earth following the drought and withering of crops described by Joel. Using one of her own photographs of the Mojave Desert, northeast of Los Angeles, Celmins executed this fine drawing in a meticulous and time-consuming technique using graphite pencil on paper prepared with synthetic polymer ground. The surface texture of the dry earth is rendered so that it completely fills the picture plane, unbroken by the horizon, a building, or any form of life.

Celmins has described her painstaking drawing process as ‘thinking’, and as a means of ‘moving from one place to another’; therefore, the creation of this work might also be understood as a record of a kind of psychological movement. Untitled (Irregular Desert) conveys a sense of emptiness and loneliness: a vastness that simultaneously suggests an engulfing or an oppressive barren landscape—a sense that is compounded by the absence of colour. Indeed, Celmins’s use of grey, a colour long associated with mourning, in this work makes it an especially powerful evocation of the ‘mourning’ ground described in Joel (v.10).



Ferreiro, Alberto (ed.). 2003. The Twelve Prophets, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament, 14 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press)

Theodoret of Cyrus. 2006. Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, Commentaries on the Prophets, 3, trans. by Robert C. Hill (Brookline, Mass: Holy Cross Orthodox Press)

See full exhibition for Joel 1

Joel 1

Revised Standard Version

1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuʹel:

2Hear this, you aged men,

give ear, all inhabitants of the land!

Has such a thing happened in your days,

or in the days of your fathers?

3Tell your children of it,

and let your children tell their children,

and their children another generation.

4What the cutting locust left,

the swarming locust has eaten.

What the swarming locust left,

the hopping locust has eaten,

and what the hopping locust left,

the destroying locust has eaten.

5Awake, you drunkards, and weep;

and wail, all you drinkers of wine,

because of the sweet wine,

for it is cut off from your mouth.

6For a nation has come up against my land,

powerful and without number;

its teeth are lions’ teeth,

and it has the fangs of a lioness.

7It has laid waste my vines,

and splintered my fig trees;

it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;

their branches are made white.

8Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth

for the bridegroom of her youth.

9The cereal offering and the drink offering are cut off

from the house of the Lord.

The priests mourn,

the ministers of the Lord.

10The fields are laid waste,

the ground mourns;

because the grain is destroyed,

the wine fails,

the oil languishes.

11Be confounded, O tillers of the soil,

wail, O vinedressers,

for the wheat and the barley;

because the harvest of the field has perished.

12The vine withers,

the fig tree languishes.

Pomegranate, palm, and apple,

all the trees of the field are withered;

and gladness fails

from the sons of men.

13Gird on sackcloth and lament, O priests,

wail, O ministers of the altar.

Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,

O ministers of my God!

Because cereal offering and drink offering

are withheld from the house of your God.

14Sanctify a fast,

call a solemn assembly.

Gather the elders

and all the inhabitants of the land

to the house of the Lord your God;

and cry to the Lord.

15Alas for the day!

For the day of the Lord is near,

and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.

16Is not the food cut off

before our eyes,

joy and gladness

from the house of our God?

17The seed shrivels under the clods,

the storehouses are desolate;

the granaries are ruined

because the grain has failed.

18How the beasts groan!

The herds of cattle are perplexed

because there is no pasture for them;

even the flocks of sheep are dismayed.

19Unto thee, O Lord, I cry.

For fire has devoured

the pastures of the wilderness,

and flame has burned

all the trees of the field.

20Even the wild beasts cry to thee

because the water brooks are dried up,

and fire has devoured

the pastures of the wilderness.