Vija Celmins

Untitled (Desert-Galaxy)


Vija Celmins born 1938
Graphite on acrylic ground on paper
Support: 442 x 956 mm
frame: 520 x 1035 x 40 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

Not on display


Untitled (Desert–Galaxy) is a work on paper by the Latvian-born American artist Vija Celmins that presents two individual drawings side by side on the same sheet of paper: on the left is a galaxy in outer space and on the right is an image of a closely-cropped desert floor. The artist has used graphite pencil on an acrylic gesso ground for both drawings. These drawings – as is the case with the majority of the artist’s drawings, prints and paintings – are based on photographs rather than the direct observation of nature. The various subject matters of Celmins’s drawings of the late 1960s and 1970s include photographic images of oceans, deserts, lunar surfaces, cloud-filled skies and galaxies – all spaces of vastness and anonymity, isolated from direct human intervention. Celmins lived and worked in Venice Beach, California in the 1960s and 1970s after moving from Indianapolis to undertake a Masters degree in Fine Art at University of California Los Angeles. Untitled (Desert–Galaxy) is the earliest work by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS. It was produced during a long period in which her practice was focused intently upon the medium of drawing, having abandoned painting in the mid-1960s only to return to it again in the early 1980s with a series of night sky oil paintings.

The photographic materials for the drawings in Untitled (Desert–Galaxy) were sourced in two different ways: the desert image is based on a photograph taken by the artist, while the galaxy image is from a published, general reference source. As the curator Jonas Storsve has explained:

In 1970, Celmins began roaming the desert with her dog. She had a particular fondness for California’s Panamint Valley and Death Valley, but soon the deserts in north Arizona and New Mexico also began surfacing in her work … In 1973, while working on her desert drawings, the artist made a drawing from a photograph of the Coma Berenices constellation that she had obtained from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
(Storsve 2006, p.22.)

These two separate entities are brought together as Untitled (Desert–Galaxy), with the artist redeploying the same Coma Berenices photograph used as the basis of her slightly earlier series of drawings, including Galaxy #1 (Coma Berenices) 1973 (reproduced in James Lingwood, Vija Celmins: Works 1964–96, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1996, p.64) and the lithograph Untitled Portfolio: Galaxy 1975 (Tate AR00605). Such recurrences of the constellation motif demonstrate the persistence and longevity of this subject matter, as it migrates to various works and mediums across a concentrated period of time.

The paper support of Untitled (Desert–Galaxy) has stretched horizontal proportions, setting up a double-vision effect where the viewer is unable to take in both images at once. Instead the viewer must move between them in a rhythmic back and forth. The uneven, slightly irregular positioning of the two rectangular drawings in relation to their paper support is immediately noticeable. The images do not match up on either axis. There is about 4 mm between the bottom of the galaxy image and the bottom of the desert image, hovering just above. There is also a larger gap above the top axis of the desert. This irregular double composition can also be seen in a series of dual-image prints Celmins produced almost a decade later at Gemini G.E.L. (Graphics Editions Limited) in Los Angeles, including Constellation – Uccello 1983 (Tate AR00606) and Jupiter Moon – Constellation 1983 (Tate AR00481).

The intense black graphite surface of the galaxy image is dense and wholly opaque, with only the stars left gleaming white as the untouched surface of the paper itself. The preparation of an acrylic ground before drawing provided an intermediary layer of paint between the paper surface and the graphite pencil, creating a smooth, even tone. The desert image has a light, all-over grey wash background, onto which the individual rocks were formed in pencil. The rock formations are precisely drawn, with shadowing and contouring. Some of the larger rocks cast shadows, so although the spatial plane is flattened out, a kind of recessive perspectival orientation is still in play; in contrast to the visual flatness of the galaxy image, which paradoxically represents far greater spatial depth.

Discussing this time in her career and making specific reference to Untitled (Desert–Galaxy), Celmins has said:

After some five years of doing intense single images with no composition, but just subtle adjustments on the plane, I could stand it no longer, so I started putting one image next to another. Sort of just shoving them together … like a galaxy image that invites you in, next to a desert surface that projects out at you. It meant that when you were close to the work each eye would see a different image, or you would have to move your attention from one to the other, but when you pulled back a bit, the images seemed to be working together, and made for a more complex spatial experience. For a while I liked that, and I did a series of double and triple-image works using pictures, mostly torn from books and magazines, that I had collected over the years.
(Quoted in d’Offay 2009, p.79.)

The art historian Briony Fer, in her analysis of a later Celmins drawing in ARTIST ROOMS (Night Sky #19 1998, Tate AR00163), has noted the fundamental role of the desert in the artist’s works on paper, writing: ‘Celmins rejects the liquid gesture in favour of the dry world of her drawing table … she might draw night skies or she might draw oceans, but the subject that reflects on her medium most directly is the desert floor. A parched ground, endlessly differentiated.’ (Fer 2004, p.106.)

Celmins has also insisted:

I’m creating a flat, invented world. Imagination comes in from building an image so that it has a physical reality with some real staying power. I try to make a work that is thoroughly considered and has a strong form. However, the manipulating of the surface is subtle and sensuous. It is in the nuances of the way the graphite feels and the marks that are left.
(Quoted in d’Offay 2009, p.79.)

Further reading
Briony Fer, ‘Focus – Night Sky #19 1998’, in Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, Vija Celmins, London and New York 2004, pp. 102–7, reproduced p.32.
Jonas Storsve and others, Vija Celmins: Dessins = Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2006, reproduced pp.98–9.
Anthony d’Offay and others, ‘Me, You, Us: Anthony d’Offay and others on ARTIST ROOMS’, TATE ETC., no.16, Summer 2009, pp.74–81.

Stephanie Straine
June 2010

Online caption

Celmins's intense monochromatic images, based on photographs of the desert and a galaxy in the night sky, focus on small and individual marks in the context of vastness. The images appear fragile because they record a specific human glimpse through a telescope or camera which is ephemeral and frozen in time. Celmins's serial exploration of her subjects allows her to exploit the distinct characteristics of the variety of media she uses. This double-image drawing brings together two of Celmins's recurring motifs, the desert landscape and the night sky. Celmins has explained that her galaxy drawings originate from a love of exploring "the blackness of the pencil." She leaves the paper bare to create points of light.