Vija Celmins

Night Sky Woodcut


Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Woodcut on paper mounted on paper
Image: 220 × 245 mm
frame: 482 × 356 × 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 Woodcut is a print in an edition of thirty plus twenty artist’s proofs of a star-filled night sky, and was printed in collaboration with master printmaker Leslie Miller at The Grenfell Press, New York, where the edition was published in 1997. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is artist’s proof number 9/20, noted at the bottom left corner of the print and signed by the artist and dated 1997 at the bottom right. 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 the proofs. 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 explained the basic tenets of the woodcut relief printing process:

In woodcutting the drawing is made on a smoothed block of relatively soft wood such as pear, sycamore, cherry or beech. It is cut like a plank, lengthwise along the grain. The lines of the drawing are left untouched, while the wood on either side of them is cleared away with a knife ... It is also possible for the actual image to be cut into the plank. When this is the case, the lines remain un-inked when printed.
(Lambert 2001, p.20.)

In Night Sky Woodcut Celmins cut the drawing of the blanket of stars into the wood surface so that her incisions translated in reverse to become the un-inked white areas of the print. This is a highly graphic and stylised technique, even more so than her work in the related wood-engraving process (see Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000 2000, Tate AR00473). Night Sky Woodcut is one of two woodcuts by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS, the other being Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992 1992 (Tate AR00484). This woodcut was printed on a small piece of landscape-oriented Japanese Kozo-Gampi paper, which after printing was mounted on a much larger portrait piece of Fabriano Tiepolo paper. The print area goes almost to the edge of the Japanese paper, which is a rich cream colour that contrasts with the off-white of the Fabriano backing paper. Unlike intaglio print techniques that use metal plates as the printing surface (resulting in a precise linear plate-mark around the impressed image), the edge of a woodcut print is rough and irregular – a characteristic that is emphasised here by the print’s double mount.

Night Sky Woodcut is a far freer translation from photographic source to printed image than the majority of Celmins’s prints, as the woodcutting process leads to a more patterned and less illusionistic surface finish. The stars are represented by very small marks, mostly oval-shaped, which are densely packed in an irregular fashion. At close range these shapes appear highly abstract, and their connection to the source material of a night sky photograph is almost completely lost. The background – the unmarked woodblock – has printed as pure black ink. There are some small, pale lines visible in the bottom half of the composition which add texture to the graphic, monochromatic surface. These are impressions from the wood grain. Commenting on the woodcut process itself, the artist has said: ‘I found that I liked the knife cutting into the wood. There was something very clear and clean about it, no fussing around.’ (Quoted in Rippner 2002, p.43.) This statement foregrounds the importance of materiality and directness to the artist’s printmaking, reminding the viewer that the physical construction of the work figures equally to the structure of its nominal subject matter.

Discussing this particular work with the curator Samantha Rippner, the artist was asked about the use of the Japanese paper. She replied:

The print was simple, just a cherry woodblock that had a very subtle surface on which I made various points of light with nails and needles … And the glow of the Kozo-Gampi gave the image a bit of depth that made it just barely hang in there, so the print is very subtle but still has a little weight because of the paper.
(Quoted in ibid., pp.46–7.)

Night Sky Woodcut is one of seven prints of varying techniques in ARTIST ROOMS that are exclusively devoted to rearticulating 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 (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.)

This statement also holds true of the related prints, in particular Night Sky Woodcut, which achieves what is certainly the most abstract version of Celmins’s night sky motif.

Further reading
Susan Lambert, Prints: Art and Techniques, London 2001.
Adrian Searle and Anne Seymour, 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.37.

Stephanie Straine
May 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. Celmins used nails and needles to make points of light throughout this woodcut print. The woodcut was printed on Japanese paper to give depth to the work.


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