Vija Celmins

Night Sky 1 Reversed


Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Photo-etching, aquatint and drypoint on paper
Image: 392 × 485 mm
frame: 572 × 661 × 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


Night Sky 1 Reversed is a three-colour, multi-technique print on medium weight white Hahnemühle Copperplate paper that depicts a negative version of a starry night sky, the stars printed in black against a cream field. It was printed and published by Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) in Los Angeles in an edition of sixty-five. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is edition number 34/65, inscribed at the bottom left corner of the print, and signed and dated by the artist at the bottom right in pencil. It forms a pair with Night Sky 2 Reversed 2002 (Tate AR00475), of which the copy held by ARTIST ROOMS has a matching edition number, 34/65.

The star-filled composition of this print – as is the case with the majority of Vija Celmins’s drawings, prints and paintings – is based on a photograph rather than direct observation of the night sky. Among the works by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS, this strand of starry imagery is prominent: prints like Mount Holyoke 1987 (Tate AR00471), the four-part series Concentric Bearings 1984–5 (Tate AR00469, AR00470, AR00482, AR00483), and the charcoal drawing Night Sky #19 1998 (Tate AR00163) all make use of a constellation, galaxy or night sky photographic source. The artist has discussed her relationship to these source materials:

I have millions of night sky images and they’re all unsatisfactory. They’re all flat photographs and they’re printed. I like that printed quality. It’s my job to make them satisfying and put them in the real world as real textural objects. I’m redescribing the image in another medium that’s real, that has some substance.
(Quoted in Seymour 2001, p.55.)
In its visual and textural redescription of the night sky image, Night Sky 1 Reversed combines four different printmaking techniques, with each method applied to the copper etching plate separately. The first is photoetching: an intaglio process that coats the plate with a light-sensitive ground which is then exposed to a photographic image and etched with acid (see Gemini G.E.L. Online Catalogue Raisonné, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.,, accessed 22 June 2010). This is followed by aquatint, a ‘method of etching in tone’ that produces a print quality similar to a watercolour wash, and is here used to achieve a finely textured surface onto which the photogravure process is transferred using light-sensitive gelatine and water immersion (see Lambert 2001, pp.60, 67). The final stage involves drypoint. This is an intaglio engraving technique, which means that the design is incised and the ink is sunk into the resulting grooves beneath the surface of the metal plate (see ibid., p.38). Drypoint is essentially a form of linear mark-making, and in Night Sky 1 Reversed it has been used to create a final layer of scratched, uneven marks upon the vast star field, which perhaps suggest other details from the photographic surface rather than features of the astronomical field, most noticeably a long line positioned diagonally across the plate that evokes a scratch on the photograph’s negative. This print has a double margin: inside the rectangular impression of the plate mark there is a hand-drawn and slightly irregular inked border line, from where the image begins. This dual reinforcement of the contained image plane is a reminder of the image’s photographic origins – the vast, dispersed field of stars cannot spread out infinitely, as it is restricted by the definite limits of the foundational rectangle of information, selected by the camera’s viewfinder and recorded on the negative film.
The stars in this night sky resemble ink stains: they have lost almost all visual relation to a photographic depiction of stars. The image in reverse therefore nears total abstraction, looking from a distance like paint splattered across the paper, except that this irregular distribution is fully contained by the strict borders of the print. Nonetheless, the very fact of the night sky’s reversal points back to the photographic origins of the work – mimicking the negative processes of photography in which the image is captured on film in reverse, as a negative trace. In conversation with the curator Anne Seymour, the artist commented that:

one of the things about the night sky images was the image became a little more abstract and a little less specific. By making a drawing in a very careful and sensuous way, I think that’s where the specificness goes. It’s really a drawing first, and second there’s an image kind of emerging from it.
(Quoted in Seymour 2001, p.54.)

This comment holds equally true of this print, where the complex relationship between the variously achieved set of engraved, etched and photo-mechanically produced marks is given precedence over the specificities of the night sky detailing, and indeed the photograph itself.

Jupiter Moon – Constellation 1983 (Tate AR00481) 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. Celmins has remarked of Jupiter Moon – Constellation that ‘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 Rippner 2002, p.23). This final comment refers to works such as Night Sky 1 Reversed and its partner print Night Sky 2 Reversed, which were produced almost twenty years after this first appearance of the inverse constellation motif. The reversed night sky also features in a painting made one year before these two prints, Night Sky #18 2000–1 (reproduced in Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, Vija Celmins, London and New York 2004, p.141). These works demonstrate the persistence and longevity of this subject matter, migrating to different facets of the artist’s practice across a substantial period of time.

Further reading
Susan Lambert, Prints: Art and Techniques, London 2001.
Anne Seymour and others, Vija Celmins – Drawings of the Night Sky, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 2001.
Samantha Rippner, The Prints of Vija Celmins, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002, reproduced p.42.

Stephanie Straine
June 2010

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Online caption

Celmins's intense monochromatic images, based on photographs, focus on small and individual marks in the context of vastness. The images seem fragile because they record a specific human glimpse through a camera which is ephemeral and frozen in time. Celmins's serial exploration of her subjects, including spider webs, allows the artist to exploit the distinct characteristics of the variety of media she uses. This negative image of the night sky turns the sky white and star formations are transformed into black markings.

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