Untitled (Web 1) is a mezzotint print of a spider’s web on Hahnemühle Copperplate paper. It was printed and published by Lapis Press, Los Angeles, in an edition of eighty plus twelve artist’s proofs numbered 1–12 and a further fifteen artist’s proofs numbered I–XV. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is the final artist’s proof and is inscribed ‘AP XV/XV’ at the bottom left corner and signed by the artist at the bottom right corner in pencil. 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 these proofs. The subject matter of this print – as is the case with the majority of Vija Celmins’s drawings, prints and paintings – is based on a photograph of a spider’s web rather than the direct observation of nature. The art historian Susan Lambert has outlined the basic tenets of mezzotint as a technique, one which Celmins has utilised in numerous prints, writing:
Mezzotint is a form of tonal engraving and, because the engraver works from dark to light, it is often described as a negative process. The plate is prepared so that it will print an even, deep black. This is done by pitting its surface systematically with a serrated chisel-like tool, known as a rocker, which raises a uniform burr. The design is formed by smoothing the burr so that different areas of the plate will hold different quantities of ink and therefore print different tones of grey … Highlights are achieved by burnishing the plate quite smooth so that when it is wiped no ink remains on these areas.
(Susan Lambert, Prints: Art and Techniques, London 2001, p.50.)
This is a small, landscape-oriented print on a much larger sheet of portrait paper, the dense black tones achieved by its highly-inked plate enhanced by the vast expanse of white paper that surrounds it. It is one of four numbered Untitled (Web) prints by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS that utilise various printmaking techniques, presenting a series of four different web formations (Tate AR00476–AR00479). There is a gradual shift from Untitled (Web 1) to Untitled (Web 4) in the character of these printed webs: from a high contrast, carefully delineated construction to a blurry, greyscale image in which the gossamer threads seem to recede into the darkness, hardly differentiated at all. The threads of Untitled (Web 1) are certainly the crispest and most defined of the series, and this print also has the blackest background. The web stretches between all four edges of the plate in a distorted trapezoid shape. The web appears taut and quite regular, and is highlighted at its apex point as if struck by a beam of light. The tonal mezzotint background is smooth and even, yet almost pixellated in its regular precision, echoing the reproduced, photographic source material. This work relates to the series of web charcoal on paper drawings which Celmins begun in the late 1990s with Web #1 1999 (Tate AR00164). Stressing the interrelation between her drawing and printmaking practices, in particular the mezzotint Web prints, Celmins has commented:
I believe working on the mezzotint, which I found to be very bizarre at first – working from black to white – influenced all those charcoal drawings. I started the drawings because I was beginning to think my painting was getting too concentrated, too tight, and I wanted to make work that was a little more open, maybe get more gesture in there with my hand.
(Quoted in Rippner 2002, p.28.)
Crediting the print technique with a productive effect on her use of charcoal, the artist underlines their shared status as negative processes – in the drawing, there is a gradual uncovering of the white paper surface as the charcoal is erased, and in the working up of a mezzotint the plate undergoes a tonal progression from dark to light. Indeed, these reversals also refer back to the works’ source material – mimicking photography – in which the image is captured on film in reverse as a negative trace. Celmins has said of the web that: ‘It’s an image that’s got a lot of associations with it, which I put in this very cold, scientific kind of dressing that I like to put my work in … you know, just the facts. I was seeing whether I could put an image that’s so charged emotionally in this kind of context.’ (Quoted in Sollins 2003, p.171.) This renunciation of overt interpretations and effacement of emotional or theatrical presence is fundamental to the artist’s approach to her photographic subjects, which also include night skies, oceans and vast expanses of desert.
In conversation with fellow artist Robert Gober in 2002, Celmins further explained her personal relationship to the spider web, both as an image and as a material presence:
[R]ecently I’ve picked up this spider web image, which is an image that’s very, very fragile, and implies something maybe more broken, more old, more tenuous … I found them in science images and I was drawn to them … I’ve been letting the cobwebs grow and am very delighted that, somehow, from the pictures in books they’ve come out in the real world.
(Quoted in Gober 2004, p.25.)
Samantha Rippner, The Prints of Vija Celmins, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002, reproduced p.40.
Susan Sollins, ‘Vija Celmins’, in Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century 2, New York 2003, pp.162–73, reproduced p.170.
‘Robert Gober in Conversation with Vija Celmins’, in Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, Vija Celmins, London and New York 2004, pp.8¿–38.