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Star Power: How the Cosmos and Night Sky Inspire Contemporary Artists | Featuring Betye Saar and Zhao Zhao

By Emily Steer

Artists have been fascinated by the night sky and its dazzling cosmos for centuries. From Van Gogh’s trippy The Starry Night (1889) to Théodore Géricault’s eerie, green-tinged After the Deluge (1819) and Georgia O’Keeffe’s geometric Starlight Night (1917), many have attempted to capture the inherent mysteries of the universe as viewed from the ground. Some have taken it a step further, with Jeff Koons launching his mini sculptures to the moon using an un-crewed Odysseus lander this February.

So why are these artists continually drawn towards space? With a solar eclipse just behind us, we explore some of the most exciting contemporary artworks that look to infinity and beyond.

Betye Saar

Betye Saar’s sumptuous Celestial Universe (1988) captures the magic of the night sky, combining the beauty of our view of stars from the Earth with the mythical allure of the zodiac. Hand painted on deep blue silk taffeta, her work maps iconic imagery, including astrology with intricate star maps and figures of famous constellations that originate in Greco-Roman mythology. While many artists look to the stars with thoughts of the future, Saar’s work captures the deep history of symbolism that lies in our skies, and the many ways in which humans have attempted to interpret he stars.

The artist has been fascinated by sky maps and star charts since she was a child, and this work has appeared repeatedly in her exhibitions since it was made. A 2016 edition created in line with Saar’s 90th birthday also highlighted the deeply personal connection she has on an individual level with the expansive galaxy: the work A Handful of Stars was a solid bronze mold of her hand placed on a walnut base, with celestial forms embedded in the palm. Like many of the artists who work with the cosmos as source material, this captured her dreams of reaching out and holding the universe in her hand.

Zhao Zhao

Not all images of the night sky are so direct. Zhao Zhao’s Constellations (2013–ongoing) are informed by his personal experience of hitting his head into the windscreen of his car during an accident in 2005 as well as the visual remains of events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. To recreate the effect, he first shot into panes of glass and painted the results in swirling oil paint, which he then interpreted using intricate silk embroidery with the help of his mother.  

The starburst patterns and energy of the works reminded him of the galaxy, and he embraced the conflict between the beauty of the pieces and their explosive creation, drawing parallels with the intense collisions that form the sublime cosmos. 

The works are characteristic of the artist’s multi-layered approach, in which something deeply political uses the language of something seemingly disconnected (the night sky), to create a powerful visual metaphor.


Image courtesy Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.