Vija Celmins

Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000


Wood engraving on paper
Image: 207 x 257 mm
frame: 570 x 478 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


Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000 is a wood engraving of ocean waves on Zerkall paper, printed and published by The Grenfell Press, New York in an edition of seventy-five prints plus artist’s proofs. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is signed and dated by the artist at the bottom right corner, along with the inscription 54/75 at the bottom left, recording its numerical place within the edition. The artist Vija Celmins has described the process of making this particular print:

This work is done with an engraving tool … The idea is that you carve the wood, take a roller, put black paint on it, put a paper on it, run it through the press … What we did is put the image, which I took many years ago, on the wood itself with an emulsion so that I would be able to see the image. As soon as you start carving, the wood underneath is white and then you see how you’re drawing it. Then, of course, we print it and it all goes black.
(Quoted in Sollins 2003, pp.172–3.)

This is a very small image relative to the size of the paper on which it has been printed, the proportions emphasising the level of fine detailing and complexity achieved on such a miniature woodblock. As a wood engraving it is much more decorative and graphic than the majority of prints by Vija Celmins, which often use a photo-mechanical transfer technique such as photogravure to directly reproduce drawings onto the metal plate surface. At a distance, these prints achieve a degree of photo-illusionism, whereas Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000 is more clearly recognisable as a handmade wood engraving. Nonetheless, the artist remains interested in cultivating a suspended relationship between the decorative and the photographic in this work. Discussing this particular print in 2002, Celmins stated:

My wood engraving has that slightly old, superficial look to it, but when you look closer you can see my mark is not mechanical. I hope it’s a work where stillness and movement, flatness and depth, are held together in a delicate balance. I like to hide things behind looks, so that the work first looks like a photograph but when you get up close you see it’s something handmade and carved from wood: a kind of surprise.
(Quoted in Rippner 2002, pp.41–3.)

Unlike Celmins’s mezzotint and aquatint prints such as Untitled (Web 1) 2001 (Tate AR00476), this wood engraving does not print in greyscale tonalities: the image is composed only of black inked areas and the engraved, therefore un-inked, lines of the ivory-coloured paper. Towards the top edge of the print, the inked portions are reduced to incredibly small dots and dashes, which together suggest waves seen at a distance. The print is blackest at its bottom right corner, where less wood has been cut away, and lightest diagonally opposite at the top left, where Celmins has engraved many closely aligned repeating incisions into the wood. The rhythmic ocean entirely fills the printed surface, with no horizon line or sky visible, although it does recede perspectivally on a steeply-inclined picture plane. This rectangular section of ocean is presented anonymously, with no indicators of geographic location, weather conditions or time of day. The representational subject matter of the ocean becomes a means through which to test the limits and possibilities of the printmaking surface.

This ocean image is based on one of a group of photographs of the Pacific Ocean, taken by the artist near her home in California in the late 1960s. The first works to derive from these ocean photographs were a series of graphite pencil on paper drawings in 1968 that experimented with variations in the density and tone of graphite across the various photographic iterations, such as Untitled (Ocean) 1968 (reproduced in Lingwood 1996, p.57). The artist retained these photographs to use in her prints many years later, such as Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000. Within the extensive group of prints by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS there are two other works that utilise the ocean motif, and in all likelihood the same source photographs from the 1960s, as the starting point for the printed image. These are Drypoint – Ocean Surface 1983 (Tate AR00467) and Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992 1992 (Tate AR00484). Along with Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000, these works demonstrate the persistence and longevity of the ocean image as subject matter, migrating to different printmaking techniques in the artist’s practice over three consecutive decades.

Referring to this work, the only wood engraving Celmins has thus far undertaken, the artist revealed:

It was very hard for me to keep my imagination in that space for so long. In a way, that print is a record of an incredible amount of attention that someone could pay to a tiny surface to make it coherent and maybe even interesting to look at. When I’m out of it, like now, I can’t imagine ever having done it.
(Quoted in Rippner 2002, p.45.)

Further reading
James Lingwood (ed.), Vija Celmins: Works 1964–96, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1996.
Samantha Rippner, The Prints of Vija Celmins, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002, reproduced p.39.
Susan Sollins, ‘Vija Celmins’, in Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century 2, New York 2003, pp.162–73, reproduced p.172.

Stephanie Straine
May 2010

Online caption

Celmins's intense monochromatic images, based on photographs, focus on small and individual marks in the context of vastness. The images seem fragile because they record a specific human glimpse through a telescope or camera which is frozen in time. Celmins's serial exploration of her subjects, including ocean surfaces, allows the artist to exploit the distinct characteristics of the variety of media she uses. Celmins worked on this wood engraving for a number of years, beginning in 1995. She used an engraving tool rather than a knife to make detailed incisions which produce a variety of markings on the paper, from deep black to the white surface of the waves.