Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992 is a woodcut of ocean waves on Whatman 1953 paper, printed in collaboration with master printer Leslie Miller and published by The Grenfell Press, New York in an edition of fifty plus ten artist’s proofs. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is artist’s proof number 9/10, noted at the bottom left corner of the print and signed by the artist and dated 1992 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. The curator Susan Lambert has explained the basic tenets of this traditional relief printing process:
In woodcutting the drawing is made on a smoothed block of relatively soft wood such as pear, sycamore, cherry or beech. It is cut like a plank, lengthwise along the grain. The lines of the drawing are left untouched, while the wood on either side of them is cleared away with a knife ... It is also possible for the actual image to be cut into the plank. When this is the case, the lines remain un-inked when printed.
(Lambert 2001, p.20.)
In Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992, Celmins cut the drawing itself into the wood surface so that her incisions translated in reverse to become the un-inked white lines of the print. This is a highly graphic and stylised technique, even more so than the related wood engraving (see Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000, Tate AR00473). The image only coalesces into a churning mass of waves when viewed at a distance; up close it is highly abstract – a thicket of black triangular forms and hatched and cross-hatched fine white lines. 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 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 subject matter of the ocean first appeared in Celmins’s work in 1968, with a series of graphite pencil on paper drawings that experimented with variations in the density and tone of graphite across the various photographic iterations. Speaking of its reappearance across many works and various decades, Celmins noted: ‘The ocean image is one that is part of me and that I try to do every now and then with a new sensibility or process.’ (Quoted in Rippner 2002, p.30.) 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 Wood Engraving 2000 2000. Along with Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992, 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. Regarding this relationship between her photographic source material and the final print, the artist has said:
The photo image is just the barest help; I still have to pay close attention not to lose my place as I refer to the actual image. The [photograph for the] first woodcut image [Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992] was taken at Venice Beach about 1969, and I had carried it with me to New York. In this print I wanted the shape of the ocean waves to carry all the spatial information and the woodblock to be just this flat, black block of printed wood.
(Quoted in ibid., pp.43–4.)
Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992 is a far freer translation from photographic source to printed image than the majority of Celmins’s prints, as the woodcutting process leads to a more patterned and less illusionistic surface finish. The peaks and troughs of the ocean appear more like solid masses than an ever-changing body of water. The techniques used by the artist in her prints are complicated, laborious and time-consuming, and this is particularly true of the woodcut. The artist has remarked: ‘The ocean woodcut was difficult because it was so hard to find your place in it and also if you make too big a cut it’s a goner.’ (Quoted in ibid., p.25.) This articulation of risk helps to account for the sensation of tension across the surface of the print. The art historian Susan Tallman has considered the artist’s printmaking oeuvre in light of these technical challenges:
Celmins gives us unencompassable vastness, reduced to intimacy. Her images thrive in situations where the act of drawing encounters the greatest physical resistance: [in] gouges in wood that cause her oceans to stiffen and condense … The visible labor in works like these is often astonishing – Celmins spent a year cutting the woodcut Ocean (1992) – but drudgery is not the point. The point is the visceral presence of what [the artist Chuck] Close calls a ‘record of decisions having been made.’
(Tallman 1996, p.126.)
Susan Tallman, The Contemporary Print from Pre-Pop to Postmodern, London 1996, reproduced p.126.
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.38.