Vija Celmins

Concentric Bearings D


Mezzotint, aquatint and drypoint on paper
Support: 457 x 567 mm
frame: 498 x 611 x 38 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


Concentric Bearings D is a three-colour print using mezzotint, aquatint, drypoint and photogravure techniques on Rives BFK paper that brings together prints from three separate plates on a single sheet of paper. The three portrait-oriented prints are ordered in ascending height from left to right. The smallest print shows a grainy image of a falling plane derived from a photograph clipping. In the centre is an image of a starry night sky while the right-hand print replicates a drawing by the artist based on a photograph of Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) 1920 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut) by Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). It is the last 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 edition number 2/34, inscribed at the bottom left corner of the print, and signed by the artist at the bottom right in pencil.

The print of the falling plane print is a mezzotint. The curator 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’ (Lambert 2001, p.50). It is a soft grey image with scratches on the print surface derived from the original photograph, indicating its age. 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). The central night sky image is also based on a found photograph rather than direct observation of the sky. This image has been printed using aquatint, and its background is a deep, pitch black. Susan Lambert has explained the basic premise of aquatint as ‘a method of etching in tone’ (ibid., p.60). Etching is an intaglio technique: an incised design where the print surface is sunk beneath the areas that are to remain blank. This print has a lively, textured surface. 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. There is also a strange diagonal line across the print surface, which could perhaps represent a shooting star, and echoes the diagonal motion of the falling plane.

The largest image, depicting Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics), makes use of photogravure to transfer the soft, greyscale quality of Celmins’s pencil drawing of the photograph into printed form. The artist commented on this process in a 2001 interview with the curator Samantha Rippner, saying: ‘I made a drawing on vellum specifically for the print. I drew the rotary device from a photograph, of course, with all its beautiful lines and shapes, and then transferred the drawing to the plate using photogravure.’ (Quoted in Rippner 2002, p.35.) Explaining this technique of photogravure, Susan Lambert states that it is:

a process by which a line or tonal image can be transferred photographically to a metal plate in such a way that it can be etched in one operation without stopping out by hand … it is dependent on the characteristics of light-sensitised gelatine. The image is printed on to the gelatine, and then the gelatine is attached to the plate.
(Lambert 2001, pp.67–8.)

This multi-stage image development, in which a photograph is translated into a drawing which is then transferred photo-mechanically onto a reprographic printmaking plate, demonstrates the layered complexity of Celmins’s working practices and highlights the ambiguous relationship between hand-drawn and mechanical mark-making in her prints. Duchamp’s motorised work is equally concerned with layering, in the form of a spatial illusion that rotates five separate panes of glass to appear in motion as a series of complete concentric circles. Celmins has also included drawn reproductions of notable works of art in other prints, such as Constellation – Uccello 1983 (Tate AR00606), another dual-image print in the ARTIST ROOMS collection that features the artist’s traced version of the Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello’s Perspective Study of a Chalice c.1430–40 (Uffizzi, Florence).

Concentric Bearings D is the last print in a series of four works that collectively presents four separate plates (two different night sky prints, the Duchamp photogravure, and the falling plane) 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 D the three images line up along their bottom edges. There are small gaps between the three images, which are positioned low down on the paper, with a large expanse of empty white paper above them. 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.)

Further reading
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.

Stephanie Straine
July 2010

Online caption

The 'Concentric Bearings' prints form an important series which Celmins produced with the Gemini G. E. L. print workshop in Los Angeles. The series explores different images of 'turning space'. 'Concentric Bearings D' contains an image of a falling plane, Celmins's own image of stars turning in the night sky and a rotary device taken from Marcel Duchamp’s 'Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) 1920'. Duchamp’s machine produced optical illusions. Celmins drew Duchamp’s rotary device from a photograph and then transferred it to the plate using photogravure. The image of the plane was particularly poignant for Celmins who spent her childhood in Latvia and Germany in the late 1930s and 1940s.