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BMA Voices: The Enchanting Working of Vija Celmins’ “Galaxy (Cassiopeia)”

Vija Celmins. Galaxy (Cassiopeia). 1973. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gertrude Rosenthal Bequest Fund, BMA 1991.24. © Vija Celmins

Vija Celmins. Galaxy (Cassiopeia). 1973. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gertrude Rosenthal Bequest Fund, BMA 1991.24. © Vija Celmins

Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician Paintings & Objects

What I love about this drawing has everything to do with the mystery of the image, and the metaphysical nature of the object itself, describing something that is beyond tactility – a galaxy. It gets translated through the use of another powdery substance, graphite. I think that Vija Celmins is one of the great living artists of my time and someone whose work I deeply admire. I encountered a large retrospective of her work in Cologne, Germany, quite by accident, and feel really lucky to have seen it. There were galaxy drawings, videos, prints of waves, three dimensional “rocks”, images of static, and more. The works are all indefinable but precise, and in all there are definitely the elements of trickery, or at least they leave me feeling a bit tricked and even odd. Peculiar, but mesmerized.

I asked our Head of Conservation, paper conservator Tom Primeau, what he thought about the artist’s technique in Galaxy (Cassiopeia). He thought that perhaps the artist had prepared the paper and then found a way to create a misted resist using something as utilitarian and practical as soap, which then created the star/cloud formation of the galaxy over and around which she could form the negative “space” with the graphite. She uses a common artist material to execute highly finished resonant images, something of a strict challenge, and what I really enjoy in her work. In an interview in 1992 with Chuck Close from the book Between Artists, Celmins talks with him about the magic aspect in her stone sculptures:

Well, the best part is that they do have a little bit of a magic quality to them. I think that the impulse to make these was so complicated that I can’t say much about them without sounding silly. They’re really something to experience, I think.

It is no wonder that Celmins was included in the Magician Ricky Jay’s Magic Magic Book, a two-volume edition also in the collection here at the BMA. The first volume is all about magical “blow books”, wherein Jay has researched the history and technical varieties of blow books. In these, a reader manipulates the pages and astonishing things happen. In the second volume, the works of several artists are presented scattered throughout, but with the correct manipulation of the book, one can see examples of the trancelike repetition of Celmins’ engravings of ocean waves.

I think in some way the idea of the magic book being manipulated in such a way is somewhat a metaphor for her works. A simple repetitive motion employed in the art-making process can arrive in a mysterious and enchanting result that may seem otherworldly.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.