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47  |   U R A N O M E T R I A
Forty-eight panels, 2006/2007
Acrylic paint on 10-mm pressboard, with nickel-plated metal
Each 82.5 x 131.5 cm
Sammlung der Berlinischen Galerie, Landesmuseum für Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur, Berlin [ Collection of the Berlinische Galerie, State Museum for Modern Art, Photography and Architecture, Berlin ] ; Gifts of Dr. Günter and Waldtraut Braun, and of Prof. Jörn Merkert ; and numerous private collections .



We city-dwellers realize too late that we must lead our lives without the stars. Year in, year out, we carry on without recourse to their corrective power and magnificence ; without the questions, great and small, to which even a glimpse of them gives rise, and then responds ; but above all, without their terrifying and transfixing beauty—Nature’s beauty, which is no more, or less, than a consequence of things being as they are.

In 2004, chronic illness came to blight my husband’s life, and thus mine, so that any attempt to get along without the starry sky seemed futile. In 2006, I resolved to reclaim the heavens for myself in a cycle of new works, and found that, with my DONNE TRIPTYCH, I had unwittingly begun to do so a few years before. For, as I write above, in a text originally composed in 2004 :

On the triptych’s outer faces, the pattern of raised dots (painted beech-wood hemispheres, representing the relief of written Braille) and smaller points of reference (painted upholstery nails, marking those of the individual cells’ six positions that are not raised) creates the image of stars in the night sky ; whereas, on its inner faces, the silver half-spheres—configured as they are without a reference grid, and mounted on sky-blue panels within golden frames—resemble less the glowing firmament with its tent of stars, than the individual constellations to be found in a celestial atlas.

DONNE TRIPTYCH, painted wood with iron and brass fittings, 174 x 355 x 7 cm (open state), 2003/2004.

That piece takes off from the sonnet “I am a little world,” in which John Donne—a contemporary of that inveterate celestial observer Johannes Kepler—invokes both the astronomers of his time, who beyond that heaven which was most high / Have found new sphears, and of new lands can write, and those blessèd souls that traditionally inhabit the higher spheres of heaven. When I first showed the finished triptych to the Swiss poet Felix Philip Ingold, he said it brought to mind a clear, cold winter’s night in which, unable to sleep and wanting air, he had thrown open the windows of his chamber, thrust out his head, and—being in the mountains—been completely ravished by the stars, seeing them, not above him in the heavens, but as if he were in their midst: his head was in the stars.

I have met with brief but startling episodes myself, in which a sudden shift in my awareness of my position within the universe’s space and sweep, a kinæsthetic reorientation, has taken place. I am convinced that such moments expose something of the cosmic nature of our origins and destinies. I recall, for instance, standing on Miami’s South Beach at sunset, in December 1988, and watching the shadow of the earth creep up a towering cumulous cloud far out over the Atlantic—or looking out our kitchen windows at another sunset, a decade earlier in Berlin, and seeing the sun sink within a shared spatial reality—not as a disc, but as the actual burning sphere it is—between the buildings to either side of Lietzenburger Straße.

Schemata of URANOMETRIA’s 48 panels, each 82.5 x 131.5 cm, 2006/2007.

T H O R E A U,  D O N N E,  A N D  K E P L E R

Asking myself just how one went about “recovering the stars,” and whether the soundlessness of falling snow might not be a terrestrial transcription of the firmament’s celestial silence, I turned first of all to Henry David Thoreau’s Journals. The notes he made there on 5 January 1856 were so lovely, just as they were—among them : The thin snow now driving from the north & lodging on my coat—consists of those beautiful star crystals … How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated ! I should hardly admire [ them ] more if real stars fell & lodged on my coat—Nature is full of genius—full of the divinity—so that not a snow-flake escapes its fashioning hand; or  … each of these countless snow stars comes whirling thus to earth pronouncing with emphasis the number 6—that I felt obliged to leave them as I’d found them.

My senses ringing with the number six, I next referred to Kepler’s treatise on the hexagonal snowflake, Strena, seu De Nixe Sexangula, a German translation of which Eleonore Frey—another friend, who is also Swiss, and also a writer of poetry and prose, at once rich and spare—had sent me a few years before. But although the tract considers, parallel to the star-shaped snow crystal, a number of things I’ve dealt with in my work—the six-sided form of the honeycomb’s cells, for instance, or the Platonic solids and their symbolic association with the classical elements—and despite the wit, intelligence, and insight Kepler displays, his pamphlet failed to suggest anything from which I felt I could generate images for the type of work I needed to do—notwithstanding I as yet had no idea of what that was. ( Having saved both Thoreau’s Journals and the Strena for another day, I’ve since come up toilsome plans for another work. )

Be that as it may—and as luck would have it—I’d no sooner put aside that text of 1611 than I happened on Von neuen Sternen (“Of new stars”), a catalogue–book just published to accompany the eponymous exhibition at Munich’s Alte Pinakothek that revolved around Adam Elsheimer’s The Flight from Egypt. Painted in Rome during the summer of 1609, this small copper panel includes the first depiction of the Milky Way to show it as the conglomeration of individual stars it is—that is, not as the amorphous cloud, or fog, it had hitherto been assumed to be—which leads one to conjecture, or rather realize, that Elsheimer was privy to the latest knowledge science had to offer, namely, a knowledge of the heavens only just made possible by the invention of the telescope less than a year before. For this reason, Von neuen Sternen included a great deal of background material on the representation of the moon and stars in The Flight’s night sky ; and it was there that I first found mention of Uranometria ( “Measuring the heavens” ) by Johann Bayer, the state-of-the-art star-atlas published in Augsburg in 1603 ( just six years, that is, before Elsheimer painted his panel ) : a work that—although still “pre-telescopic”—is considered the first modern celestial atlas. The exhibition’s catalogue–book reproduced only one of Uranometria’s maps, namely, that of the constellation Hercules, but even before I had obtained reproductions of all of Bayer’s maps and charts, I was convinced that, with them, I would uncover the source for my new work : material, ample and arcane, on which to base a set of images.

Johannes Kepler, MYSTERIUM COSMOGRAPHICUM, Plate III,1621. Collection Chapin Library, Williams College.

In the event, the sheer volume of data in Uranometria was in itself exhilarating, and I was anxious to get right to work. On the other hand, I was enjoying my ‘fieldwork’ so much that I decided to take the time to pore over Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers, a book which had been on my to-read list for decades—and one whose readers cannot possibly come away from without having fallen for Johannes Kepler and his literally star-crossed life and genius. I likewise fell, and so it was particularly pleasing for me to find my long-esteemed John Donne’s name, work, and thinking come into play in connection with Kepler’s (and Copernicus’) ideas and exploits. Indeed, as I pursued the possible implications of this intellectual and epochal connection, I stumbled upon a ( for me ) breathtaking bit of information—and one which has only come to light since Koestler wrote his book in 1959—namely, that three and a half centuries earlier, on Wednesday, 23 October 1619, in Linz, Kepler and Donne had actually met [cf. Jeremy Bernstein, Heaven’s Net, in: American Scholar,  Spring 1997, Vol. 66, Issue 2].

The fact that an awareness of this meeting had no bearing on my new pictures by no means diminished the enormous pleasure I derived—and still derive—from the simple knowledge that such an encounter once took place. Even knowing that Kepler seems to have been unaware that the “Mr. D. Donne” whom he received that day was the poet John Donne hardly detracts from my delight at all. (He probably saw in him but an English Doctor of Theology, chaplain to a Royal diplomatic peace mission, who might advance the cause of both Kepler’s own Harmonia Mundi ( “Harmony of the world” ) and that of Protestantism in Catholic Europe.

‹Cetus›, Plate XXXIV of Johann Bayer’s Uranometria (Augsburg 1603). Copper engraving by Alexander Mair.


Johann Bayer’s Uranometria comprises fifty-one star charts engraved in copper by Alexander Mair, of which forty-eight show the traditional Ptolemaic constellations ; of the remaining three, the first shows the then recently discovered constellations of the deep southern skies, while the other two plates are planispheric representations of the complete northern and southern hemispheres.

I chose to work with the forty-eight engravings that deal with individual constellations, not only for the beauty of the individual plates and the charm of their draftsmanship, but due to the fact that these maps not only display exact grids of celestial latitudes and meridians, but also include tabular lists of 1,300 stars—complete with their ancient names and designations—as well as descriptions of their positions based on Tycho Brahe’s catalogue of coordinates. In addition, each star is labelled with a Greek letter, according to Bayer’s novel system of stellar nomenclature ( still in use today ), categorized as belonging to one of the six conventional classes of magnitude—whereby, stars of the first class are largest and brightest, and those of the sixth smallest and weakest. It is worthy of note that this information had all been collected based on observations made with the naked eye.

Above: The 16 stars in Johann Bayer’s star chart ‹Triangulum›, 1603, labelled according to their magnitude (Roman numerals) and numbered within these classifications (Arabic numerals). Copper engraving by Alexander Mair.

Below: New positions of the same 16 “stars” (nickel-plated nail heads) determined by chance operations (drawing of lots) for URANOMETRIA XXI TRIANGULUM; and below that, the panel itself.

P R I N C I P L E S  O F  C O M P O S I T I O N

From the very beginning, I commandeered the title URANOMETRIA for my projected work, deciding that, like Bayer’s Uranometria, mine would consist of three parts and comprise forty-eight elements in all : forty-eight panels, each labelled with a Roman numeral and the name of an individual constellation. But neither within the atlas itself, nor in my further reading, did I find clues that seemed to suggest satisfying, workable dimensions for my panels. I decided to abstract and manufacture their measurements out of the material I’d collected.

After no little deliberation, I settled on the surface area of one square meter per panel, reasoning that the lux, a unit of illuminance, is calculated as one lumen per square meter. I was sure, however, that under no circumstances did I want my panels to be square—and hence static—and so, chose to use the Golden Section to determine the height and width of a rectangle of this surface area : a rectangle in horizontal, or landscape, format, like the handsome folio leaves of Bayer’s Uranometria. The dimensions I thus arrived at—82.5 x 131.5 [x 1] centimeters—might be considered generous for a traditional “work on paper,” whereas they might seem on the small side for an easel painting nowadays.

To arrive at the content and design of my four dozen panels, I took the 3,436 stars on Bayer’s forty-eight plates—a number that takes the many repetitions of stars from plate to plate into account—and redistributed them, map for map. First, I determined the magnitude of each star of the primary, or title, figure of each constellation, and then those of any ambient stars “borrowed” from their neighbors and included in each engraving.

I collected this data in forty-eight tables. The map of the constellation Triangulum, for instance, comprises all of sixteen stars—of which three belong to the fourth, eight to the fifth, and five to the sixth and weakest categories of brilliance, with none being classified as being of the first, second, or third magnitude (see directly above). That of the great, semi-mythical river Eridanus includes 162 stars of all six orders of magnitude.

In order to determine the precise location for each of these new stars, I first ruled a grid consisting of 162 vertical and 162 horizontal lines (choosing 162 so that it would not be necessary, or even possible, for any two stars to establish a straight line either horizontally or vertically). I then drew lots to assign each star its x- and y-coordinates out of the 26,244 potential positions on each panel. As the format of the panels is not square, but rectangular, the grid formed by the intersecting lines consist not of small squares, but of rectangles each measuring 5 x 8 millimeters, so that the characteristic dynamic of the Golden Section becomes wed to the distinctive visual energy generated by a systematic application of chance operations to artistic decision-making processes.

Schemata and details of the panels VII HERCULES, XXIII TAURUS, and XXXVI ERIDANUS.

E X A M P L E S  A N D  T H E  E X E M P L A R Y

It goes without saying that, with URANOMETRIA, I wanted to create something possessing both beauty and an atmospheric presence, something, that is, reasonably deserving of being associated with the stars. Yet I had made it my goal to accomplish this by employing only such means and materials as would not be suspected of having been chosen to sentimentalize the subject or create romantic, painterly effects. As a consequence, my night skies are made of building materials and hardware : 10-mm-thick pressboard, coated with dark-blue ( almost black, really ) semi-gloss acrylic paint ( No. 5008, Graublau, mixed according to the classic German color-norm system developed by the RAL, Reichs-Ausschuß für Lieferbedingungen [ “State ( or imperial ) commission for terms of delivery” ] )—into which surface an assortment of nickel-plated upholstery nails and round-head pins has been driven, according to the tables of coordinates described above.

Looking for prospective “star material,” I combed Berlin’s do-it-yourself hypermarkets, hardware stores, and upholstery shops, and eventually assembled a collection of nickelled nails whose heads were varied enough in diameter and convexity to create—keeping in mind the fluctuating scales to which the different maps had been drawn, the expanse of heaven, that is, that each encompassed—a selection of eleven different types, which I arranged on a graduated scale. From these various shapes and sizes, I was able to choose those that seemed most suitable to represent the designated magnitudes in each group of stars and mark their new locations in the grids of my rejiggered constellations. Standing close to one of the panels, you see yourself and the space about you reflected as many times as there are small, shiny ‘stars’ on its dark-blue surface ; stepping back, you will see how the domed nail heads catch and focus the available light, casting it back in surprisingly evocative glints and glimmers.

When Mathias Niehoff, then director of the Villa Oppenheim, first saw my one-to-one prototypes, he had two comments to make, and I’m hard put to say which of them delighted me more. The first was that he wanted to exhibit the entire series as soon as it was finished (which he did, from May to July of 2007); and the second was that looking at them made him happy—high praise, indeed, albeit of a tenor I had only recently come to appreciate .

The forty-eight panels of URANOMETRIA present us with familiar constellations, seen in a new light and viewed from a new perspective : from a vantage point within the stars. As do their archetypes in nature, these simulated star groups encourage us to seek and identify pattern and significance—in them and in our selves— thus perhaps contributing, if only in a very small way, to the ongoing discussion as to whether or not the casting of dice played a rôle in the original arrangement of the world.

Installation views of the exhibition URANOMETRIA, Villa Oppenheim, Berlin, 2007.


The opening of the URANOMETRIA exhibition at the Villa Oppenheim proved a happy confluence of events and personalities, just as, while they were being hung, the forty-eight star panels had seemed to distribute themselves, dynamically, but not invasively, in groups of from two to nine throughout the Villa’s high-windowed rooms.

No doubt due in large part to its readily legible “found” and familiar nature—a nature that, devoid of virtuosic “performance” pretensions, possessed something of the unfathomable beauty of the impersonal, primordial night sky—the work seemed to inspire the crowd at the opening with the universality of its perspective, thus creating a geniality of spirit I had rarely experienced at a vernissage. But then again, the crowd itself was particularly congenial, as it included everyone from my niece Elizabeth Gray, fresh from her studies in Seville, to architect Rob Krier and his wife, Roswitha Grützke, weaver of tapestries; composer John Patrick Thomas and his partner hornist Richard Rieves were there, in from Hamburg; and artist Max Wechsler and his wife, the photographer Christine Fleurent had arrived from Paris. (Illustration: Invitation to the opening of URANOMETRIA on 25 May 2007.)

One of Max Wechsler’s grandmothers had been born an Oppenheim, though she seems not to have been directly related to the Villa’s namesake owners, who were offspring of the illustrious Mendelssohn Bartholdy clan. The historian Felix Gilbert (1905–1991)—as a German émigré, professor at Bryn Mawr and Princeton—made one of their number. Well before the First World War, as a small boy, he had summered there with his mother’s parents, until the family, feeling the area was becoming too urbanized, sold the Renaissance Revival building to the City (now the Borough) of Charlottenburg—named for the Prussian Queen consort Sophie-Charlotte of Hannover, whose former palace is just up the road—and went on to build a new country residence near Potsdam, on the Wannsee.

In 2007, the Villa Oppenheim was home to the public Galerie für Gegenwartskunst ( “Gallery for contemporary art” ), which has
since been shut down by local political vendetta. On the gallery wall, I had inscribed the words Leicht gleicht der Himmel dem Wort ‹immer›— inadequately Englished : “ Heaven is easily/slightly like the word ‘ever’ ”—taken from the poem Himmelskunde ( “Astronomy” ) by Felix Philipp Ingold, whom the actor and writer Hanns Zischler also quoted in his remarks at the opening. During those remarks, on that early evening in late May, the heavens themselves opened, releasing a magnificent deluge of rain and hail from massing thunderclouds. Afterwards, as we left the gallery, a double rainbow stretched across the sky to the East.

Announcement of an exhibition of 14 panels from URANOMETRIA, Brandenburg, 2012.