Vija Celmins - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 14, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Vija Celmins, 'Night Sky #23', Lot 9

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Provenance

    McKee Gallery, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2003

  • Exhibited

    Paris, Centre Pompidou, Galerie du Musée; Los Angeles, The Hammer Museum, Vija Celmins, l'oeuvre dessiné / Vija Celmins, A Drawings Retrospective, October 25, 2006 - April 22, 2007, no. 66, pp. 139, 167 (illustrated, p. 138)
    Cologne, Museum Ludwig; Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Vija Celmins: Wüste, Meer & Sterne / Desert, Seas & Stars, April 15, 2011 - January 8, 2012, p. 135 (illustrated, p. 115)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “if we were not located in a galaxy we would see no stars at all;
    if gravity were not so weak, the stars would be smaller,
    and if the stars were smaller they wouldn’t burn for
    very long, and if they didn’t burn for very long we
    wouldn’t be here” - Vija Celmins & Eliot Weinberger

    Executed in 2003, Night Sky #23 belongs to Vija Celmins’s mature series of constellations rendered in charcoal begun in 1994. Each a celebration of temporality, careful observation and most importantly, the act of drawing itself, the Night Sky works on paper are some of the most celebrated in the artist’s oeuvre. Having drawn her first constellation in the early 1970s in Venice Beach, California in graphite, the artist would reprise the subject in the early 1990s in New York City with a newfound vigor in charcoal. With examples of these turn-of-the-century Night Sky charcoal drawings housed in important collections around the world—including Untitled (Night Sky #22), 2001, The Museum of Modern Art, New York and Night Sky #20, 1998, Kunstmuseum Winterthur—the present work demonstrates Celmins’s prowess as the preeminent draughtswoman of her generation. Housed in the same distinguished private collection since its creation, Night Sky #23 comes to auction concurrent with Celmins’s celebrated retrospective—and largest exhibition to date—beginning at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last year and now on view at the Met Breuer, New York.

    In 1973, Celmins made her first drawing of a starry sky based on a photograph of the Coma Berenices constellation from the California Institute of Technology’s library. Almost 10 years after receiving her master’s degree in art from the University of California, Los Angeles and three years after The Museum of Modern Art, New York acquired three of her works for their permanent collection, by this time Celmins had already solidified both her importance and distinct aesthetic in the American art scene. In her first Night Sky drawings, Celmins employed the same process used in her seascape works from the previous decade, applying graphite to an acrylic ground in varying grades of pencil, ranging from hard to soft and dark to light. The resulting four drawings are thus all different, despite being based on the same photograph. Like artists such as Giorgio Morandi, who painted the same still-life compositions in multiple iterations, Celmins repeats her chosen imagery while also reinventing it in new terms each time. In this way, her step-by-step process lends itself to series of works which are more about the act of looking and reinterpreting than the subject itself. “I see drawing as thinking, as evidence of thinking, evidence of going from one place to another” (Vija Celmins, quoted in Briony Fer et. al., Vija Celmins, London, 2004, p. 125).

    After moving to New York in the early 1980s, Celmins switched back and forth between painting and drawing, returning almost exclusively to drawing in the 1990s, this time in charcoal. As such, Night Sky drawings like the present work were the first of their kind, and also her first major works on paper made in her new home of New York. Here, she switched from graphite and acrylic to charcoal, representing what Joan Storsve called a “radical change” (Joan Storsve, Vija Celmins: Dessins/Drawings, exh. cat., Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2006, p. 24). Applying the same technique of altering the density of the medium to achieve varying degrees of gray-scale, she applied the charcoal directly onto the paper—a method which she referred to as “kind of a relief, because it was dustier and had more relationship with the support”— and used an eraser to etch into the surface the fields of stars, revealing the white surface of the paper beneath (Vija Celmins, quoted in “Oral history interview with Vija Celmins, conducted by Betsy Sussler”, New York, October 18, 2011, p. 32).

    As Briony Fer explains of the effects of the charcoal in these works, “Celmins shows how many blacks there are in black. She uses the shading colors that in conventional pictorial terms describe shadows and define solid bodies through chiaroscuro – but she uses them instead to differentiate a flat all-over surface, varying from jet-black through a silvery or a leaden grey. Grisaille colors thought to be somber are enlivened in this way to animate a surface as we might expect color to do. The charcoal is velvety and matt and absorbent. Black is a palette. If there is an analogy with night viewing it is this: the slow adjustment to seeing in the dark, to making out the slightest gradation” (Briony Fer et. al., Vija Celmins, London, 2004, pp. 104-105).

    In capturing darkness, a nearly-impossible phenomenon to record, Celmins links her artistic process to the act of looking. “Celmins’s redescriptions produce dialogues between different modes of production and perception…They are sights too bright, too vast, too distant, too ever-changing for the naked eye to take in…Some stars, even when viewed through the most powerful of telescopic lenses, remain pinpricks in a dark expanse” (Frances Jacobus-Parker et. al., Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 2018, p. 89). It is therefore just as much Celmins herself as her viewers who make works such as Night Sky #23 both abstract and representational, conveying “a timeless, impersonal, and rather cold beauty that can be inexplicably moving” (Calvin Tomkins, “Vija Celmins’s Surface Matters”, The New Yorker, August 26, 2019, online).

A Discerning Vision Property from an Important Private Collection


Night Sky #23

signed and dated "V. Celmins 03" lower right
charcoal on paper
16 1/8 x 22 in. (41 x 55.9 cm.)
Executed in 2003.

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for $1,040,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019