Vija Celmins



Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Aquatint, mezzotint and drypoint on paper
Frame: 645 × 530 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Presented by the artist 2010


Alliance 1983 is a print that combines two plates placed one above the other in the centre of a single sheet with wide borders. The images are different sizes, the lower one being just slightly smaller than the top one. They are different in style – the top one depicts a line drawing of a ship and the bottom one a close-up depiction of the night-sky, where a black surface is covered in white stars. The print is made using aquatint, mezzotint and dry-point, which are all used when making intaglio etchings. Celmins has a long history of using traditional methods of print-making in her practice; this work is one of a number of intaglio prints that she made at Gemini, GEL in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Related prints include Jupiter Moon – Constellation 1983 (Tate ARTIST ROOMS AR00481), Constellation – Uccello 1983 (Tate ARTIST ROOMS AR00606) and Concentric Bearings A 1984 (Tate ARTIST ROOMS AR00469) – all of which similarly combine two images on a single plate.

Meticulously rendered details of natural environments, such as night-skies, lunar landscapes, the desert and seascapes, are all subjects that Celmins repeatedly explores in her work. In Alliance, she combined one of her ‘star-field’ images alongside a delicately drawn image of a boat. The boat image is taken from a found source, most probably an engineer’s drawing of a ship, which Celmins meticulously copied. The use of photographs is central to Celmins’s practice. Whether painted, drawn or etched, most of her work has its origins in some sort of photographic image, either a found image or a photograph taken by the artist herself. Celmins often isolates part of the source image, rendering it as a close-up detail, so that it appears fragmented. Art historian Lane Relyea has argued that Celmins’s images appeal ‘to a reality beyond the material facts … the reference itself always points in two directions, claiming simultaneously its own sudden presence as well as its unavoidable displacement.’ (Relyea, Gober and Fer 2004, p.87.) It is typical of Celmins’s prints that they often sit within a large white border. Elke M. Solomon has suggested that this method helps ‘Celmins to apprehend her subject as a clearly defined object and not fragmentary images: the subject matter is clearly a photograph.’ (Cited in Storsve 2007, p.21.)

Alliance is one of the first prints in which Celmins combined two or more plates on a single sheet. Prior to this, she had made drawings in which images of night skies were juxtaposed with details of natural landscapes, such as Untitled (Desert – Galaxy) 1974 (Tate ARTIST ROOMS AR00162). Discussing her decision to create work in which she juxtaposed two or more images, Celmins explained:

After some five years of doing intense single images with no composition, but just subtle adjustments to the plane, I could stand it no longer, so I started putting one image next to another. Sort of just shoving them together ... like a galaxy image that invites you in, next to a desert surface that projects out at you. It meant that when you were close to the work each eye would see a different image, or you would have to move your attention from one to the other, but when you pulled back a bit, the images seemed to be working together, and made for a more complex spatial experience. For a while I liked that, and I did a series of double and triple-image works using pictures, mostly torn from books and magazines, that I had collected over the years. I’m creating a flat, invented world. Imagination comes in from building an image so that it has a physical reality with some real staying power. I try to make a work that is thoroughly considered and has a strong form. However, the manipulating of the surface is subtle and sensuous. It is in the nuances of the way the graphite feels and the marks that are left.
(Quoted in ‘Me, You, Us: Anthony d’Offay and Others on ARTIST ROOMS’, Tate Etc., no.16, Summer 2009, p.79.)

Alliance was included in the major exhibition of Vija Celmins’s prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2002.

Further reading
Jonas Storsve, Vija Celmins: Dessins/Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2007.
Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, Vija Celmins, London 2004.
Samantha Rippner, The Prints of Vija Celmins, exhibition catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2002, reproduced p.20.

Kyla McDonald
May 2010

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