Vija Celmins

Constellation - Uccello


Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Aquatint and etching on paper
Support: 691 × 585 mm
frame: 762 × 653 × 32 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
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


Constellation – Uccello is a print combining aquatint and etching on two separate plates, one of which depicts a star-filled sky while the other is a rendering of the Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello’s famous Perspective Study of a Chalice c.1430–40 (Uffizzi, Florence). The plates are printed on a large portrait-oriented sheet of Fabriano Rosapina paper in an edition of forty-five plus twelve artist’s proofs. It was printed and published by Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) in Los Angeles, in collaboration with master printmaker Doris Simmelink. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is edition number 28/49, noted at the bottom left corner of the print and signed and dated by the artist at the bottom right, in pencil.

The two images are small relative to the paper size. The plates are aligned along the bottom axis, with their recessed plate-marks visible, providing clear borders for the images. The composition of the print of the starry night sky is derived from a photograph rather than from direct observation, as is the case with the majority of Vija Celmins’s drawings, prints and paintings. An opaque coverage of black printing ink occupies the majority of the constellation’s rectangular field, leaving the stars as circular orbs of un-inked white paper. It is a very crisp, black and white contrast print, whereas the plate to its right of Uccello’s drawing of a chalice is a tonal greyscale image. The rectilinear armature of the chalice fills almost the whole plate, with the date 1958 visible in the bottom left corner – almost certainly the date of the reproduction from which Celmins drew her version. In this image the lines are crisp although not pure black, and the background is a hazy grey aquatint, with pitted plate marks and spotting. Asked by the curator Samantha Rippner how she copied the Uccello image, Celmins replied:

I may have traced parts of it from a book. I had been to Florence when I was a student and had loved Uccello. I had never seen the real drawing of course; only in the book did it exist for me … I like to say that I redescribe an existing image, not copy or reproduce. So actually I was drawing the reproduction of the Uccello, with all its reproduction qualities, and the secondary subject was the Uccello. I was interested in flat space and Uccello was interested in representing dimensional space. His drawing is so exquisite – it’s one of my favourites – and the print is kind of a little homage to him.
(Quoted in Rippner 2002, p.23.)

Etching is an intaglio print technique, meaning that it is an incised design where the print surface is sunk beneath the areas that are to remain blank. The curator Susan Lambert has described the basic premise of aquatint, another intaglio technique:

Aquatint is a method of etching in tone. The key to the technique lies in the application of a porous ground, consisting of particles of finely powdered asphaltum or resin. The acid contacts the plate where it is unprotected between the particles, thereby etching pits in the metal which gives a grainy texture when printed. The tone of any part of the printed image is dependent on the depth to which the pits are etched, so the design is built up in stages by stopping out areas once they have been adequately bitten.
(Lambert 2001, pp.60–1.)

This grainy texture is immediately apparent in the Uccello print image, while the granular nature of the constellation image is restricted to the radiating points of light in the night sky. Constellation – Uccello is one of several double-image works on paper by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS, including Jupiter Moon – Constellation 1983 (Tate AR00481), a print produced at the same time as this one, and Untitled (Desert–Galaxy) 1974 (Tate AR00162), an earlier graphite on paper work. Celmins has explained in detail the working processes she used in Constellation – Uccello. Initially referring to the chalice print, she said:

This is a soft ground, a copper plate that has a soft ground. When you put a paper down and press on it, it leaves a kind of fuzzy line. Because I was really, in a way, mimicking the drawing that Uccello had done … not really the drawing, but the reproduction of the drawing as I found it in the book, this is another instance where two images are kind of hanging onto each other. [Referring to the constellation image:] This is an aquatint with the little lights blocked out and then a little bit of scraping.
(Quoted in Sollins 2003, p.169.)

Further reading
Susan Lambert, Prints: Art and Techniques, London 2001.
Samantha Rippner, The Prints of Vija Celmins, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002, reproduced p.21.
Susan Sollins, ‘Vija Celmins’, in Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century 2, New York 2003, pp.162–73, reproduced p.169.

Stephanie Straine
June 2010

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Online caption

Celmins began experimenting with double-image prints following such double-image drawings as 'Untitled (Desert-Galaxy) 1974', also in the ARTIST ROOMS Collection. Celmins combined images from photographs she had collected which were particularly important to her. 'Constellation – Uccello 1983' brings together Celmins's own image of the night sky and a found image of a drawing by the Renaissance master Paolo Uccello. While Uccello’s perspectival drawing of a chalice explores the representation of three-dimensional space on the flat page, Celmins's own image explores a different rendering of space. Her interest lies in the surface and flat space. She had been to Florence as a student and had greatly admired Uccello. It is likely that she traced part of the image from a book.

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