Mount Holyoke is a one-colour etching of black ink on white paper depicting a starry night sky, dated 1987 and inscribed with the artist’s proof number 12/12 at the bottom left corner of the print, and signed by the artist at the bottom right. Artist’s proofs are identical in appearance to the numbered edition but are usually printed beforehand with the artist and publisher retaining most, if not all, of the proofs. It was printed in collaboration with the master printmaker Doris Simmelink, who has been involved with the production of many Vija Celmins prints. The star-filled composition of this print, as is the case with the majority of Vija Celmins’s drawings, prints and paintings, is based on a found astronomical photograph rather than direct observation of the night sky. The artist began work on the etching plate which would be used to edition this print in 1986 while in residency at the printmaking workshop of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. However, as the art historians Richard Field and Ruth Fine have noted, ‘several months of further work in the artist’s studio were required before it was completed’ (Field and Fine 1987, p.60). This comment refers to the print Untitled Galaxy, an identical etching in an edition of ten that is dated 1986, a year prior to the date of Mount Holyoke. It is likely that the artist decided to reuse the etching plate to print and publish another edition, renaming the work after the place where it was conceived and developed.
Etching is an intaglio print technique, meaning that it is an incised design where the print surface is sunk beneath the areas that are to remain blank. The print curator Antony Griffiths explains the essential principle of etching:
The metal of the plate is removed by eating into it with acid rather than by cutting it out with a tool as in engraving. The plate is coated with a ground impervious to acid through which the artist draws so as to expose the metal. The whole plate is then immersed in acid until the lines are sufficiently bitten. Finally the ground is removed and the plate inked and printed in the usual intaglio way.
(Griffiths 1996, p.56.)
The background of this night sky image is not an even coating of black printer’s ink, but is instead pitted with marks or, more accurately, it is a dense cross-hatching of etched lines, with the stars formed by the areas of the plate left untouched by the etching needle. It appears almost like a woven surface, suggestive of a fabric with many small holes between its linear construction. The print is contained by a double margin, both plate-mark and image border, a standard practice for Celmins who believes this definite edge emphasises the constructed and contained nature of her work.
‘Her prints, like her graphite drawings, address her intense concern with the surface on which she works, her testing of the picture plane and of pictorial depth.’ (Field and Fine 1987, p.59.) This notion of testing or experimentation is particularly apt for Mount Holyoke, a print that was begun at an art college residency, and whose technical requirements necessitated a prolonged and close involvement with the etching plate surface. It is one of seven prints of varying techniques in ARTIST ROOMS that are exclusively devoted to rearticulating a night sky photograph. They relate to an important series of charcoal on paper works with which Celmins returned to her drawing practice in the mid-1990s, including Night Sky #19 (Tate AR00163). The art historian Briony Fer has commented that:
If Night Sky #19 is a drawing of anything, it is a drawing of a photograph culled from an astronomy book … Whilst I don’t think the effect of her work is to make us feel lost in the enormity of a sky we could say that we do get lost in translation between photography and drawing and painting. These are the translations that seem to interest her most.
(Fer 2004, p.102.)
Printmaking can be understood as the next link in the artist’s chain of photographic translations, transfers and technical transitions. In works such as Mount Holyoke, printmaking enables an amalgamation of hand-worked surface (the needle drawing into the etching plate) and mechanical reproduction (the multiple prints produced from the single plate), which further resonates with the artist’s interest in seriality and the repeating, reusable night sky motif.
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, reproduced p.4.
Antony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques, London 1996.
Briony Fer, ‘Focus – Night Sky #19 1998’, in Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, Vija Celmins, London and New York 2004, pp.102–7.