“Even though you may think they came from lying under the stars, for me, [the night sky drawings] came out of loving the
blackness of the pencil. It’s almost as if I was exploring the blackness of the pencil along with the image that went with it.”
Vija Celmins’ Galaxy (Hydra) is an early example of the constellation drawings that Celmins began in the early 70s while living in
Los Angeles. The work’s incredibly sumptuous surface has been painstakingly rendered in countess layers of graphite, a process
that can take months to complete. The resulting drawing captures the effect of looking into the deep recesses of a starry night; some of the stars radiate a bright, shining light with crisply delineated outlines, while others sink deeper into the background, producing a hypnotic push and pull between the flatness of the paper’s surface and the extreme depth that Celmins creates. Throughout her career, Celmins has tackled the impossibility of rendering the vast, unknowable recesses of the world—oceans, deserts and the night sky—employing such humble materials as graphite on paper. Her works are based on photographs that capture a fixed rendering of those places constantly in flux: a million minute changes ensure that one can never truly see the same place twice, be it ocean, desert or night sky. Obsessively built upon infinitesimal layers of graphite,
the present work is a truly bravura performance, in which Celmins captures the vastness of the universe through her singular markmaking. The result is an entirely mesmerizing drawing that verges on the sublime. Galaxy (Hydra) was created during a pivotal moment in the artist’s early career. Just a few years earlier, in 1967, Celmins stopped painting entirely, in order to focus on drawing alone. What followed was a decades-long exploration of drawing and the development of a sustained body of graphite on paper works, of which Galaxy (Hydra) is a supreme example. Because Celmins devoted so many years of her career to working with graphite, her drawings might be seen as the penultimate expression of her artistic development. In an oft-quoted interview conducted by the artist Chuck Close in 1992, Celmins described the process of drawing and its importance on her work. She describes: "I see drawing as thinking, as evidence of thinking, evidence of going from one place to another. One draws to define one thing from another. Draws proportions, adjusts scale. It is impossible to paint without drawing.” (V. Celmins, in conversation with in Chuck Close, in William S. Bartman, ed., Vija Celmins, New York, 1992, p. 11). Further into their conversation, Chuck Close described his preference for the graphite pencil over the paint brush: “Even the smallest brush is a clutzier, clumsier tool; then you use this very sharp thing.” Celmins goes on: “You can pin the drawing to the paper on the point. Each point is like a point of consciousness. So it is like a record of having been there, which is probably what you like because we’re both artists. You get to be very intimate with the process of putting down the point of the pencil. I like it at that moment. I like the fact that I didn’t have to smudge or erase, or push or pull" (V. Celmins, quoted in Ibid., p. 136).
Coming of age in Los Angeles in the 1960s—a veritable hotbed of artistic activity—Celmins was undoubtedly influenced by the radical
new drawing techniques that were just emerging there, from the wall drawings of Sol Lewitt to the gunpowder drawings of Ed Ruscha. Indeed, as countless critics have noted, Celmins’ night sky drawings were truly revolutionary, eliminating nearly everything that drawing had previously stood for: there is no single, definitive line, no linearity in her drawings. Instead, she builds up a complex, meticulous and tender surface from delicate shading in a process that can take months or even years. Celmins herself describes: “I developed a touch that you could hardly tell was a touch” (V. Celmins, in conversation with Robert Gober, in Between Artists, 1996, p. 15).