Vija Celmins

Drypoint - Ocean Surface


Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Drypoint on paper
Image: 186 × 239 mm
frame: 705 × 552 × 38 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
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


Drypoint – Ocean Surface is a small, one-colour drypoint engraving of ocean waves in black ink on white Arches Satine paper. It was printed and published by Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) in Los Angeles in an edition of seventy-five with twelve artist’s proofs, in collaboration with master printer Doris Simmelink. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is artist’s proof number 3/12. 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.

This print is a drypoint with no other techniques involved. Drypoint is an intaglio engraving process which means that the design is incised and the ink is sunk into the resulting grooves beneath the surface of the metal plate (see Lambert 2001, p.38). Drypoint is essentially a form of drawing. As the curator Susan Lambert explains: ‘In this technique the line is scratched on the plate by a tool with a sharp point. The tool is held in much the same way as a pencil.’ (Ibid., p.50.) There is a clean, graphic quality to the resulting print; however, there is also a softness to the grey tones of the majority of the wave surface, which is accented by white highlights from the un-inked paper and contoured by darker shadows in areas of greater ink density. Looking closely at the surface of the print you can see that these gradations from light to dark are achieved through hatching and cross-hatching by the drypoint needle. These individual lines are so fine that at a distance they coalesce into the precise wave formations.

The waves entirely fill the printed surface. The image gradually shifts from the darkest, foreground waves at the bottom edge to the lightest and smallest at the top of the plate, with the image receding perspectivally as the picture plane tilts upwards. The ocean is cropped so that no horizon line or sky is visible. This is a very small image relative to the size of the paper on which it has been printed. It is a landscape-oriented print on a large portrait piece of paper, with a double margin around the image – both a plate mark from the printmaking process and a separate border. This reinforces the status of the image as a hand-engraved, printed reproduction of a photograph, in effect a double translation from the original source material.

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.

The rectangular section of ocean in this print is presented anonymously, with no indicators of geographic location, weather conditions or time of day. The waves are almost uniform in their precise graphic description and rhythmic undulation, and do not convey any sense of danger, romanticism or sublime notions of nature. These are superfluous emotive connotations which do not interest the artist. The ocean image is linked to Celmins’s contemporaneous exploration of desert and lunar surfaces as alternative frameworks for her mark-making. The curator Neville Wakefield has considered this facet of her practice:

Resisting the theatrical grandeur of the canyons or the romantic appeal of the crashing seas, she favours instead surface tensions created out of minute and barely perceptible agitations. The seascapes, like the desertscapes, though transcribed from photographs that the artist would take from the pier on Venice beach or her walks in Death Valley, are also depictions of all seas, and all deserts.’
(Wakefield 1996, p.47.)

Within the extensive group of prints by Celmins in ARTIST ROOMS there are two other works that utilise the ocean motif, and perhaps even the same source photograph as the starting point for the printed image. These are Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992 1992 (Tate AR00484) and Ocean Surface Wood Engraving 2000 2000 (Tate AR00473). Along with Drypoint – Ocean Surface, 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.

Discussing her reuse of the ocean motif across many years and various works, 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. I loved the directness of the drypoint. Mezzotint is also direct, meaning that neither requires an etch before printing.’ (Quoted in Rippner 2002, p.30.) This unmediated touch of drypoint needle on metal plate complicates the mechanical reproduction of printmaking with the direct intervention of the artist’s hand.

Further reading
Neville Wakefield, ‘Temps Morts’, in James Lingwood (ed.), Vija Celmins: Works 1964–96, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1996, pp.44–7.
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.22.

Stephanie Straine
May 2010

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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 camera which is ephemeral and frozen in time. Celmins’s serial exploration of her subjects, including ocean surfaces, allows the artist to continually exploit the distinct characteristics of the variety of media she uses.

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