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Vija Celmins


  • Dec-1984
    © Vija Celmins

About this artwork

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.

Updated before 2020

Vija Celmins (born 1938) American
Mezzotint on paper
40.70 x 38.80 cm; platemark: 41.80 x 39.70 cm (paper 74.70 x 57.50 cm); Framed: 78.10 x 61.00 x 3.70 cm
Object type:
Work on paper
Credit line:
ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund, 2008
Accession number:
In Storage
Artwork photographed by:
Antonia Reeve

December 1984 is a one-colour mezzotint print of a star-filled night sky in black ink on white Rives BFK paper. It was printed and published by Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) in Los Angeles in an edition of twenty-five with eight artist’s proofs, in collaboration with the master printmaker Doris Simmelink. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is edition number 3/25, inscribed at the bottom left corner of the print, and signed by the artist at the bottom right in pencil. The art historian Susan Lambert has explained the mezzotint technique, which Celmins has utilised in numerous 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. A scraper is used to remove large areas of burr, and a burnisher for more delicate work. Highlights are achieved by burnishing the plate quite smooth so that when it is wiped no ink remains on these areas.
(Lambert 2001, p.50.)

December 1984 exploits the mezzotint’s full spectrum of negative processes using the rocker, burnisher and scraper, and its resulting greyscale variations across the print surface create both a minutely-detailed abstract pattern and a convincing suggestion of many thousands of stellar formations. 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 an astronomical photograph rather than direct observation of the night sky. 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.)

This mezzotint was printed on a very large piece of portrait-oriented paper. The engraved copper plate was positioned close to the top edge of the paper when printed so that there is a large expanse of paper beneath the printed image, giving a sense of absolute containment and not the infinity normally associated with night skies. This is a densely-packed constellation image, with a pitch-black background and stars that range from near-black, to grey, to the pure white of the paper. The stars range in size from miniscule dots to relatively large circles of glowing white. The visual field appears as a richly patterned surface, while never quite losing its referential quality. Some stars radiate hazy auras, while others are crisply defined. There is nothing regular about the contents of this print – the placement of the star clusters vary enormously and the randomness of this arrangement drains any specificity from Celmins’s generic, reusable format. 

In the 1980s the artist focused her work upon a return to painting, which she had abandoned in the late 1960s in favour of working with graphite on paper. The 1980s also ushered in a more sustained commitment to printmaking, which became an integral part of Celmins’s work, with the production of many editioned prints, both individually and in series. The night sky remained a constant preoccupation: prints like Mount Holyoke (1987) and the four-part series Concentric Bearings (1984–5) all made use of a constellation, galaxy or night sky photographic source. Discussing the artist’s continuing focus in the 1990s on night skies as subject matter for her resurrected painting practice, the art historian Lane Relyea noted that:

by the 1990s her night-sky paintings, especially the blackest ones, could not appear more dense and flat; more significantly, in them the role of photography seems to have all but disappeared … the tension that she has always sought now exists between a hard surface presence and an image of endless, deepest emptiness.
(Relyea 2004, p.94.)

This is an important reminder of Celmins’s trajectory away from a reliance on photographic illusionism and towards a more intimate exploration of surface. In the absolute opacity of its evenly-printed black ink background,December 1984 anticipates these later paintings of the night sky, which sought to explore the possibilities of absolute blackness as a signifier of both the flat plane of the paper surface and the rendering of deep space.

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.29.
Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, Vija Celmins, London and New York 2004.

Stephanie Straine
May 2010

True colours

Vija Celmins