Born in Riga, Latvia in 1939, Vija Celmins and her family moved to the United States in 1949 and settled in Indianapolis, Indiana. She received a fellowship to attend Yale University for the summer session in 1961 and the following year, attended the John Herron Institute in Indianapolis where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She received a Master of Fine Arts from UCLA in 1965.
Although best known for her intensely realistic paintings and drawings, Celmins began printmaking in the early 1960s. She relies on traditional intaglio, lithographic and relief processes to create scenes of desert floors, ocean surfaces and star-filled skies.
Her first solo exhibition took place in Los Angeles, California in 1966. She has taught at the University of California, Irvine; California Institute of the Arts, Valencia; Cooper Union; and Yale University. Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Newport Harbor Museum, Newport Beach, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London among many other institutions. A traveling mid- career retrospective of her work was organized at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1992. Celmins currently works and lives in New York.