Concentric Bearings C is a three-colour print using aquatint, drypoint and mezzotint techniques on Rives BFK paper that brings together prints from three separate plates on a single sheet of paper. The smallest, central print shows a grainy image of a falling plane derived from a photograph clipping. This is bordered by two different starry night sky images of varying size. It is the third of four prints, lettered A–D, that make up the Concentric Bearings series (Tate AR00469, AR00482, AR00483, AR00470). It was printed and published by Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) in Los Angeles in an edition of thirty-four plus six artist’s proofs, in collaboration with master printmakers Kenneth Farley and Doris Simmelink. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is artist’s proof number 3/6, inscribed at the bottom left corner of the print, and signed by the artist at the bottom right in pencil.
The night sky image on the right is the largest of the three portrait-oriented prints, which are based on found photographs rather than direct observation, as is the case with the majority of Vija Celmins’s drawings, prints and paintings. The night skies have been printed using aquatint. Both have black ink backgrounds, although the left image has more hazy greys in parts of its background, like dust clouds, whereas the right image is pure, pitch black. The curator Susan Lambert has explained the basic premise of aquatint as ‘a method of etching in tone’ (Lambert 2001, p.60). Etching is an intaglio technique: an incised design where the print surface is sunk beneath the areas that are to remain blank. These prints have lively, textured surfaces. Looking closely, evidence of the drypoint’s linear engraving is visible. The drypoint needle, often used to retouch and refine an aquatint, here enhances the detailing of the variously shaped stars, whose pinpricks of light are in fact the un-inked white surface of the paper, which contrasts dramatically with the black ink of the space that surrounds them. Two shooting stars create a pair of diagonal lines across the left-hand sky that echoes the diagonal scratches on the falling plane print, which is a mezzotint. Susan Lambert describes the mezzotint technique, which Celmins has utilised in numerous prints, as ‘a form of tonal engraving and, because the engraver works from dark to light, it is often described as a negative process’ (ibid., p.50). The falling plane is an ominous symbol of warfare, which resonates with the artist’s childhood emigration from Latvia to the United States as a consequence of the Second World War. Falling planes first appeared in Celmins’s work in the mid-1960s at the height of the Vietnam War in a series of oil paintings that depicted Second World War-era German and American aircraft, such as Suspended Plane 1966 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).
Describing the Concentric Bearings series, curators Richard Field and Ruth Fine have stated: ‘In developing these prints, as she has developed all of the etchings, Celmins worked through many proof stages to achieve the precise tonalities she desired. In the course of proofing she was able to test the various combinations of images.’ (Field and Fine 1987, p.59.) Concentric Bearings C is the third print in this series of four works that collectively presents four separate plates (two different night sky prints, the grainy image of a falling plane, and a photogravure of the artist Marcel Duchamp’s (1887–1968) Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) 1920) in different configurations so that no one print contains all images from the series. Prints A and B contain two images each, while C and D have three images. A sequence of repetitions and juxtapositions occur over the series as a whole. Discussing the genesis of the Concentric Bearings series, Celmins has said:
A sort of theme was developing around describing space … about spirals, concentric circles, the plane spiralling down, the rotary device spinning, the stars turning: a similarity of events. And of course I always liked Duchamp’s piece and also the reproduction through which I found it. I though it was kind of humorous that Duchamp wasn’t going to call his object art, so I put it in something that maybe you would call my art. It’s those little nuances that hold the work together.
(Quoted in Rippner 2002, pp.34–5.)
In Concentric Bearings C the majority of blank paper is above the prints, which are positioned close together and aligned along the bottom edges, which run very close to the lower edge of the paper itself. As part of a series of prints that investigates spatial relations, this proportionality is purposeful. The artist has commented on this aspect of her printmaking practice, explaining:
The paper became an extension of the print. How the print sat on the paper and the peculiar proportion and placement all became the work … My feeling is that every decision about the size of the borders has a corresponding effect on how one perceives the image.
(Quoted in ibid., p.15.)
Richard S. Field and Ruth E. Fine, A Graphic Muse: Prints by Contemporary American Women, exhibition catalogue, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts 1987.
Susan Lambert, Prints: Art and Techniques, London 2001.
Samantha Rippner, The Prints of Vija Celmins, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002, reproduced p.27.