Vija Celmins | Reaching for The Stars

“For myself, I declare I don’t know anything…But the sight of the stars always makes me dream.” Vincent van Gogh

In an interview with the Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins, and his fellow student from Yale University’s 1961 Summer Programme, Chuck Close suggested that only two people have ever truly been able to handle stars: Vincent van Gogh and Celmins.

Throughout history, the celestial vista of the night sky has been a subject filled with reverie, inspiring artists to look heavenwards to the vast unknown. For Celmins, who began her career by painting the mundane objects of her studio, a love affair with the cosmos began in the 1960s when she discovered photographs of the moon taken by the Soviet Union’s space mission Luna 9. Over time, the otherworldly surface of the moon moved into sublime panoramas of oceans, deserts and galaxies, devoid of human life. Having fled Latvia as a child when the Iron Curtain fell, Celmins and her family first settled in Indianapolis before she went on to study painting in Los Angeles. Immersed in the furore of the space race in California, Celmins has since returned over and again to intricate images of stars burning in the night sky; each iteration conjuring a different emotional resonance through the slightest of changes.

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Published in 2005 by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Stars features three prints by Celmins on this cosmic theme, accompanied by a lyrical poem from the essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger. An etching of dappled textures and tones of midnight-blue serves as the wrap-around cover; a trompe l’oeil in effect that mimics the worn, stitched binding of a late 19th or early 20th century Japanese book.

Inside, the two remaining prints evoke very different readings of the stars, their varied surface and timbre. The first is a double gatefold etching, embedded in Weinberger’s text: a delicate, translucent page of vellum, sprinkled with a constellation of dark dust. Folded upon itself, the stars in this inverse image are layered upon one another, adding further complexity to the night sky and visually representing the parallel universe theory. In this deluxe edition of The Stars of twenty-six (numbered A – Z), a version of this etching, printed in a more traditional format on embossed paper, is tucked inside a separate silk portfolio.

Celmins’ final image performs as the book’s epilogue: a matrix of lines punctuated by flecks of white that mimic Weinberger’s definition of stars as “holes in the great curtain.” This wiry grid, made by drawing onto an etching plate through an acid-resistant coating, emphasises the meticulous nature of Celmins process, which she explains allows her to forge “an intimacy with the subject…to enter that grey world in a personal way and…draw my way out of it.” The lattice also disrupts the gaze and breaks the spell, reminding the viewer that this is not the night sky at all, but a conceptual re-imagining of a photograph.

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Accompanying Celmins mesmeric and minutely detailed images are Weinberger’s profound words, questioning “the stars: what are they?” The answer appears in a curious ode to the cosmic beings, moving effortlessly from portents of evil to fiery embers of creation. Through countless visual synonyms and tales of Vishnu, Varuna, Thjasse and Dhruva, Andromeda, Perseus and King Arthur, Weinberger expresses the endless invention of the human imagination, mirrored by the nature of the boundless night sky stretching out into the darkness.

Inspired by a plethora of meanings, Weinberger’s verse is translated into Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese and Maori. For Celmins, translation is at the heart of her own process, not only in terms of the dialogue between Latvian and English, but the transformation of one medium into another. Working always from photographs and dog-eared cuttings from literature, Celmins does not simply picture the experience of the heavens. Instead, she distances herself from the subject, choosing to re-imagine a reproduction and the act of looking itself; controlling, compressing and transforming a found image of the sky into a painting, drawing or print. As Celmins’ explains, “even though you may think they came out of lying under the stars, for me, they came out of loving the blackness of the pencil.”

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In The Stars, Celmins relishes the physicality of the printing process, the tender precision of each sharp scratch and mark on the etching plate resulting in nuances of tone and line. Having experimented with printmaking as a student, Celmins discovered the real potential of the medium in 1980 when she collaborated with Gemini (G.E.L., Los Angeles) and Doris Simmelink, who also worked on the etchings for The Stars. Using diverse techniques of photogravure, soft ground, burnishing, spit bite and aquatint, across multiple plates, Celmins fills her prints with so much texture and life that they become “fat” – as the artist would say. Celmin’s careful and painstaking method echoes the eons that it takes for light to travel from the furthest stars to earth. Her playful use of borders too – at times allowing the prints to expand to their edges and at others to be contained by white margins – counters and aligns with the notion of the limitless universe. The physicality of Celmins’ etchings, highlighted by these marks and edges, opens a dialogue between the elusive stars and the physically-present reproductions of the night sky that she uses as her source material.

While Celmins’ prints in The Stars are rooted in a fascination with this negotiation between the intangible and tangible, the juxtaposition of her visual language with Weinberger’s poetry cannot help but conjure a sense of romance. This sentiment is shared by Marina Abramović, who proclaims in her own manifesto that, “An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky.”

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