Vija Celmins

Black and White Diptych


Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Mezzotint with aquatint
Unconfirmed: 300 × 420 mm
unconfirmed: 510 × 590 mm
frame: 550 × 630 mm
Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2011
On long term loan


Black and White Diptych is a one-colour print using black ink on white paper that consists of two individual images placed side by side. The image on the left of the diptych depicts a black night sky studded with stars, while the right-hand panel offers a duplicate image but rendered in negative, so that the black space is white and the white stars are black. There are other small but significant contrasts: the right-hand image is a minutely taller than that on the left, and it has also been rotated 180 degrees so that while the pattern of constellations remains the same, they are configured differently in each image. In this way difference has been introduced within repetition.

To create this work the Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins used the printing techniques of mezzotint and aquatint, both of which allow for shading and gradation within the print. This is particularly apparent in the night sky to the left, where stars shimmer with different degrees of brightness to create a sensation of depth. During the 1960s and 1970s Celmins worked primarily in painting and drawing, but in the 1980s she started to explore a range of printing methods, from woodcut to drypoint etching. The printing processes allows for the creation of multiple iterations of the same image – as the doubling within Black and White Diptych demonstrates. Celmins’s source imagery often consists of found photographs, and her use of printing introduces further layers of replication and reproduction into her work.

From very early on in her career, Celmins developed her drawings, paintings and prints based on collections of photographic source material gathered from books and magazines. In 1991 the artist recalled the first time she used photographs:

I had been away from my family and lonely. I had been going through bookstores finding war books and tearing out little clippings of airplanes, bombed out places – nostalgic images. At first I painted them. Later I decided the clippings were this wonderful range of greys for me to explore with graphite.
(Quoted in Close 1992, p.12.)

Often Celmins would pin these source images up on the walls of her studio, creating a constellation of images from a range of different contexts into a new, non-hierarchical arrangement. The composition of the two images in Black and White Diptych can be connected to Celmins’s interest in the tackboard (or pinboard) as an organising structure for found ephemera culled from a range of sources and media. It is a compositional device that the artist used in the creation of several other prints during the 1980s, such as the Concentric Bearings A, B and C series from 1984 (see Tate AR00469, AR00482 and AR00483), which similarly replicate the tackboard structure in miniature.

Celmins has described how she often starts a painting, drawing or print ‘after obsessing on an image, or the look of a printed image I’ve found somewhere in a book or remembered from somewhere’ (quoted in Relyea, Gober and Fer 2004, p.11). The singling out of the night sky image in Black and White Diptych conveys something of this obsessive attention. Celmins has engaged with images of the night sky extensively since the 1970s, testified by works including Galaxy 1975 (Tate P78335) and Night Sky #19 1998 (Tate AR00163), the images for which were drawn from scientific and astronomical sources. Made in 2010, Black and White Diptych may be seen to reproduce or even re-appropriate her own earlier work, bringing questions about originality and repetition into play.

The differences between the two images in Black and White Diptych emulate the shifting patterns of the night sky as the earth turns on its axis. Yet while the reproduction on the left is immediately identifiable as stars seen against a night sky, when the colours are swapped the image becomes less easy to read. Although the print itself is modest in size, the scale of Black and White Diptych is impossible to fix as either microcosmic or macrocosmic: the image on the right may represent atoms or tiny particles suspended in a solution as much as a galaxy. By making a couple of simple alterations to colour and arrangement, Celmins shows how the inference of an image can be radically changed. The contrast between the illusion of recess in the night sky and the flatness of the negative version conveys a sense of tension between depth and surface, in a manner comparable with the Reverse Galaxy prints the artist made in the same year (see for example Reverse Galaxy 2010, Tate AR01157).

Celmins’s use of the word ‘Diptych’ in the title of this work has a religious resonance, emphasising the image’s reflective air. A diptych traditionally refers to a small portable panel painting from the medieval period, consisting of two distinct but related images bound together by a hinge at the centre, often used for personal devotional purposes. With this in mind, the two images of the sky may be offered for meditation. However, the art historian Briony Fer has argued that ‘Celmins’ sense of the infinite is absolutely not transcendental or sublime but material and concrete’ (Relyea, Gober and Fer 2004, p.102). While Black and White Diptych features an image of infinite space, this expanse is treated in an intimate, tangible way, rather than presented as overwhelming and transcendent.

Further reading
Chuck Close, ‘Interview with Vija Celmins, New York, 26 and 27 September 1991’, in William S. Bartman (ed.), Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close, New York 1992.
Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, Vija Celmins, London 2004.
Vija Celmins, Dessins / Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2007.

Catherine Spencer
The University of Edinburgh
September 2014

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

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