Vija Celmins

Night Sky 3


Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Aquatint and drypoint on paper
Image: 372 × 471 mm
frame: 541 × 643 × 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 3 is a one-colour aquatint print with burnishing and drypoint on medium weight, white Hahnemühle Copperplate paper that depicts a tonal image of a blanket of stars against a night sky. It was printed and published by Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) in Los Angeles in an edition of sixty-five plus proof copies. The print held by ARTIST ROOMS is signed and dated by the artist at the bottom right corner, and inscribed ‘SP 5/9’ at the bottom left of the print, in pencil. The notation SP stands for Special Proof, a ‘proof specifically created for presentation purposes by the artist or publisher that equals the right to print impression or standard used for the edition. In some cases this is called a dedication proof (DP)’ (Glossary, Gemini G.E.L. Online Catalogue Raisonné,, accessed 22 June 2010). 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 found astronomical photograph rather than direct observation of the night sky. The curator Susan Lambert has described the basic premise of aquatint, which is an intaglio technique whereby the print surface is sunk beneath the areas that are to remain blank:

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 granular, etched surface quality is immediately apparent across the surface of Night Sky 3. Susan Lambert also notes that, ‘As with line etching, continuous gradations of tone cannot be achieved with pure aquatint. After the plate has been etched and the ground and varnish removed, however, the flat tonal areas can be modified by the use of a burnisher in the same way as in mezzotint’ (ibid., p.61). This print has a lively, textured surface. Looking closely, the stroking marks of the burnisher tool, and the drypoint needle’s linear etching, are visible, making repetitive incisions across the plate surface and further modulating the aquatint ground.

This night sky is filled with many stars, some tiny pinpricks, others quite large, with radiating lines extending from their centres. None show the pure white surface of the paper; they are slightly dulled by the tonal pitting of the aquatint and so do not appear as brilliant points of light. In the composition, the sky is darkest in its bottom third, reaching a near-black tone. This darkness creeps up, along the two vertical edges of the plate, so that there is a central, oval-shaped area of lighter grey.

In an interview with the curator Samantha Rippner in 2002, the year Night Sky 3 was produced, Celmins said of her printmaking practice that:

I used to make graphic work that projected out into a room and grabbed you. In the last fifteen or so years, I seem to have changed to having the work invite you closer, so that the success of the work comes from being intimate with it and inspecting it closely.
(Quoted in Rippner 2002, p.48.)

This statement seems particularly appropriate for Night Sky 3, where the detailed textural composition, a combination of tonal gradation and linear cross-hatching, requires close looking by the viewer, whose relationship to the image radically changes in the move towards the printed surface. From a distance, the work could be mistaken for a photograph, the image’s source material; however, this impression is displaced upon a more sustained interrogation of technique and material structure. Night Sky 3 is one of seven prints of varying techniques in ARTIST ROOMS that are exclusively devoted to the rendering of a night sky photograph. They relate to an important series of charcoal on paper works with which Celmins returned to her drawing practice in the mid-1990s, including Night Sky #19 1998 (Tate AR00163). Commenting on this series of drawings in 2001, the artist noted:

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 Searle and Seymour 2001, p.54.)

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.44.
Adrian Searle and Anne Seymour, Vija Celmins – Drawings of the Night Sky, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 2001.
Glossary, Gemini G.E.L. Online Catalogue Raisonné, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.,, accessed 22 June 2010

Stephanie Straine
June 2010

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Online caption

Celmins's intense monochromatic images of the night sky, 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 telescope or camera which is ephemeral and frozen in time. Celmins's serial exploration of her subjects, including the night sky, allows the artist to exploit the distinct characteristics of the variety of media she uses.

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