Vija Celmins

Jupiter Moon - Constellation


Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Mezzotint and etching on paper
Image (upper): 146 × 193 mm
image (lower): 125 × 185 mm
frame: 630 × 510 × 37 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


Jupiter Moon – Constellation is a dual-image print combining mezzotint and etching that depicts a photograph of one of Jupiter’s moons together with a constellation image in reverse. It was printed and published by Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) in Los Angeles, in collaboration with master printmaker Doris Simmelink, on a large portrait-oriented sheet of Fabriano Rosapina paper in an edition of forty-eight plus twelve artist’s proofs. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is artist’s proof number 11/12, noted at the bottom left corner of the print and signed by the artist at the bottom right, in pencil. Artist’s proofs are identical in appearance to the numbered edition but are usually printed beforehand with the artist and publisher retaining most, if not all, of these proofs. The production of this work involved three separate print impressions, all using black ink on the two copper etching plates. The sequence was as follows: a soft-ground lift, a mezzotint, and then finally a hard ground etching of the inverse constellation to complete the print (see Gemini G.E.L. online catalogue raisonné,, accessed 15 June 2010).

There is a large amount of white paper around the two landscape-orientated rectangular prints which comprise Jupiter Moon – Constellation, which are centred on the large sheet of paper and stacked one above the other to create a vertically aligned dual composition. The bottom plate, of the inverse constellation, lines up with the top plate of the Jupiter moon image at the left hand margin, falling slightly short of its width at the right hand margin, creating an uneven relationship between the images. The bottom constellation image appears to be the result of a pure etching process, whereas the Jupiter moon is clearly the result of a mezzotint process. Both images have plate impressions, and the paper undulates slightly as a result of the printmaking processes. There is a double line border around the reverse constellation image.

The Jupiter moon mezzotint is covered in repeating black dots in a grid arrangement, like newspaper photo-registration marks. The mezzotint’s tonal variations, in combination with the soft-ground lift, produces a spectrum of velvety grey tones on the surface, with the print achieving an opaque black at the top right corner of the image. This contrasts with the pure white background of the etched constellation image, which has no tonal variation. As an image it is very abstract, suggestive of a decorative fabric pattern. Its visual source cannot be easily discerned; it is only the title that reveals it to be a rectangular section of a densely packed constellation. The relationship between the images is unclear, although both have astronomical subject matters. The image juxtaposition is twofold: first at the level of process (the tonal versus linear techniques), and second at the level of photographic subject matter (the close-up of a single lunar body in contrast to a vast celestial field registered via a wide-angle telescopic lens). The artist’s work of the 1980s shows a more sustained commitment to printmaking, which became an integral part of her practice. Across these variations in media the night sky remained a constant preoccupation: prints like Mount Holyoke 1987 (Tate AR00471) and the four-part series Concentric Bearings 1984–5 (Tate AR00469, AR00470, AR00482, AR00483) all made use of a constellation, galaxy or night sky photographic source.

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 art historian Susan Lambert has explained the mezzotint technique, which Celmins has utilised in numerous other prints:

Mezzotint is a form of tonal engraving and, because the engraver works from dark to light, it is often described as a negative process. The plate is prepared so that it will print an even, deep black. This is done by pitting its surface systematically with a serrated chisel-like tool, known as a rocker, which raises a uniform burr. The design is formed by smoothing the burr so that different areas of the plate will hold different quantities of ink and therefore print different tones of grey.
(Lambert 2001, p.50.)

Jupiter Moon – Constellation exploits the mezzotint’s full spectrum of negative processes, and its resulting greyscale variations across the Jupiter Moon surface delicately translate the black and white photographic source. In conversation with the curator Samantha Rippner in 2001, and discussing the series of double-plate prints to which this work belongs (along with Constellation – Uccello 1983, Tate AR00606), the artist commented:

One was my image – the night sky – which I had been fondling around in my work, making variations on, and the other was a found image of another kind of spatial exploration, like Uccello’s perspective drawing of the chalice, an engineer’s drawing of a ship, or the satellite image of one of Jupiter’s moons. All were three-dimensional representations on a flat page.
(Quoted in Rippner 2002, p.22.)

Celmins then remarked of Jupiter Moon – Constellation in particular, ‘the Jupiter moon is such a fabulous image, which I found in one of my travels through bookstores looking at pictures. At the bottom of that print is a reversed galaxy, an image that I’m interested in again now’ (quoted in ibid., p.23). This final comment refers to works such as Night Sky 1 Reversed 2002 (Tate AR00474) and Night Sky 2 Reversed 2002 (Tate AR00475), which were printed shortly after the interview with Rippner took place.

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.23.
Gemini G.E.L. online catalogue raisonné, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.,, accessed 15 June 2010.

Stephanie Straine
June 2010

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

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. Her intense monochromatic images focus on small and individual marks in the context of vastness. The images seem fragile because they record a specific human glimpse through a telescope or camera which is ephemeral and frozen in time. This work pairs one of Jupiter’s moons with a negative image of the night sky. The sky becomes white and star formations are transformed into black markings.


You might like