Night Sky #19 (1998) is a charcoal drawing on coated white paper that depicts a vast field of stars in the night sky. It is signed and dated by the artist at the bottom right corner of the landscape-oriented sheet of paper. This drawing – as is the case with the majority of Vija Celmins’s drawings, prints and paintings – is based on a photograph rather than the direct observation of nature. Night Sky #19, as its numerical title suggests, is one of an extensive series of night sky images produced by the artist in the 1990s, directly related to earlier representations of galaxies from the 1960s and 1970s, seen in one half of the dual-image drawing Untitled (Desert–Galaxy) (1974). For both series Celmins obtained the source materials from books, newspapers and magazines: published photographic clippings that the artist used as a platform for her artistic production. As the art historian Briony Fer has commented:
If Night Sky #19 is a drawing of anything, it is a drawing of a photograph culled from an astronomy book … Whilst I don’t think the effect of her work is to make us feel lost in the enormity of a sky we could say that we do get lost in translation between photography and drawing and painting. These are the translations that seem to interest her most.
(Fer 2004, p.102.)
The mid-1990s marked a return to drawing for the artist, who had devoted most of the previous decade to her painting practice, which she had abandoned in the late 1960s. The 1980s also ushered in a more sustained commitment to printmaking, which became an integral part of Celmins’s work. Across these variations in media 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.
The curator Jonas Storsve has highlighted Celmins’s shift from the method of earlier works on paper such as Untitled (Desert–Galaxy) to that of the 1990s drawings, declaring:
If the subject was the same, the technique had undergone a radical change: instead of graphite on an acrylic ground, Celmins opted for charcoal and an eraser … she now applied the charcoal by hand directly onto the paper and used the eraser to draw the fields of stars, digging down through the charcoal ground to reach the white surface of the paper.
(Storsve 2006, p.24.)
This is the drawing process undertaken in Night Sky #19. The charcoal has been rubbed deep into the paper in a slow, accumulative process. This background is blackest at the bottom edge, where traces of pure, unblended charcoal are visible along the loosely delineated margin of the rectangular drawing space. An electric eraser burrows through these many layers of dusty charcoal to create starry pinpricks of light as a kind of negative drawing – a process that moves backwards towards the original colour and surface of the paper. This technique can also be seen in Web #1 (1999). Some of the stars are more nebulous than others, having been only partially erased from the dense charcoal field. This creates a greyscale range of tonal variations between the black of the charcoal and the white of the paper, giving the drawing a mottled effect in which the celestial clusters appear to emit varying levels of brightness in the night sky (thereby suggesting a range of distances from Earth).
The art critic Adrian Searle has described the night sky in Celmins’s work as ‘an image with no horizon, it is entirely frontal’ (Anthony d’Offay Gallery 2001, p.9). This reinforces the close relationship between the type of images Celmins chooses to work with and the flat plane of the drawing surface. Her translation from photograph to drawing does not seek to duplicate the source image accurately or illusionistically, but rather, as the artist articulates:
In the drawing, I try to present a certain kind of sensibility about making a drawing, about restraint, about not expressing, but sort of toning down an image until there is very little gesture in the strokes, but there remains a sensuality to explore.
(Quoted in Anthony d’Offay Gallery 2001, p.54.)
This emphasis on achieving a restrained yet sensual type of drawing underscores the intensely material base of Celmins’s highly conceptual approach to working with an existing image. Complicating the reproducibility of her photographic sources by subjecting them to painstakingly precise handiwork produces a drawing that is suspended between mechanical detachment and a physical involvement with surface and medium. The artist herself suggests: ‘Drawing is kind of like a dry world, the dry world of graphite and little pieces of charcoal … Charcoal’s a bit like paint really, it dribbles away into dust and you can work with your hands.’ (Quoted in ibid., p.56.)
Adrian Searle and Anne Seymour, Vija Celmins – Drawings of the Night Sky, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 2001, reproduced p.43.
Briony Fer, ‘Focus – Night Sky #19 1998’, in Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, Vija Celmins, London and New York 2004, pp.102–7, reproduced pp.102–3.
Jonas Storsve and others, Vija Celmins: Dessins = Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2006, reproduced p.133.