Images of the great unknown have always fascinated scientists and artists, and pretty much everyone else. This week NASA managed to land the largest and most advanced rover ever on Mars with the aim of analysing the geological make up and beaming back pictures of the planet’s surface to assess whether there ever was life on Mars. Curiosity, as it has been named, weighs a ton and touched down on the Red Planet using elaborate landing system straight out of a science fiction novel (including a giant parachute and a floating ‘sky crane’).  

This lithograph of the night sky by Vija Celmins comes from 1975, the same year as the first joint (USSR/USA) space mission, and was made from a painstaking pencil drawing. Since the 1970s, Celmins has been making meticulous images of  stars or the surface texture of the sea and desert. Without a horizon line to interrupt the pattern, her reduced colour palette of greys conjures up black and white photography, oddly similar to those images Curiosity has already sent back of the surface of the Gale Crater on Mars.

For Celmins though, it’s not the exploration of space that fascinates, it’s exploration of a material: 

I see drawing as thinking, evidence of getting from one place to another. One draws to define one thing from another … I tend to take very small increments and steps in changing. An example was that I had been working with the pencil and I began to see that the graphite itself had a certain life to it. So I did a series of images of oceans and deserts using different grades of graphite and pushing each one to its limit. I learned a lot about the possibilities of expressiveness in graphite by doing this. Then I moved into the galaxy drawings. Even though you may think they came from lying under the stars, for me, they came out of loving the blackness of the pencil. It’s almost as if I was exploring the blackness of the pencil along with the image that went with it.

You can see work by Vija Celmins on display alongside her selection of JMW Turner works at Tate Britain.

Anthony d'Offay introduces Vija Celmins work.