Vija Celmins

Untitled (Source Materials)


Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Iris print on paper
Image: 357 × 309 mm
frame: 797 × 595 × 37 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


Untitled (Source Materials) is a full colour Iris print on paper that depicts a pile of newspaper clippings and photographic images. These source materials include lunar surfaces, galaxies, planets, oceans, falling planes and nuclear experiments that have all featured in Vija Celmins’s drawings, paintings and prints from the mid-1960s onwards. Untitled (Source Materials) was printed in an edition of one hundred plus artist’s proofs. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is edition number 76/100, noted at the bottom left corner of the print, and it is signed and dated by the artist at the bottom right corner in pencil.

An Iris print is a form of high-resolution inkjet printing that enables photographic reproduction through the scanning of contact sheets or other photographic material in combination with various digital imaging techniques. It was originally associated with commercial and industrial printing, but is now widely used as a form of fine art printmaking. Iris prints are also referred to as Giclée prints. The photographs and clippings featured in Untitled (Source Materials) were selected from the artist’s large collection of paper ephemera, hoarded by Celmins over the course of thirty or more years. They were then scanned individually, cleaned digitally, and assembled to produce a file enlargement, which was printed as a single inkjet print in one process. Iris is therefore a digital reproduction technique unlike traditional printmaking methods such as etching, lithography or photogravure that concern Celmins’s printmaking at large (for example Jupiter Moon – Constellation 1983, Tate AR00481). As the art historian Susan Tallman notes in her history of post-war printmaking, ‘ink-jet or laser-printed images are not properly “prints”: there is no fixed matrix, no physical press of paper against a template’ (Tallman 1996, p.214). Nonetheless, this digital work clearly has a direct relationship to the wider body of traditional prints in Celmins’s oeuvre (of which there are numerous examples in ARTIST ROOMS), while also indicating the artist’s willingness to make use of new technologies to record and interrogate her image-based practice.

Celmins began her career in the early 1960s painting the household objects of her Venice Beach studio in cool grey tones, for example Lamp #1 1964 (reproduced in Relyea 2004, p.47). It was towards the end of that decade that she replaced this direct observation of three-dimensional objects with a focus on the flat, subject-mediated plane of photography. The art historian Lane Relyea has observed:

It wasn’t long after Celmins adopted the photograph as her subject matter that she began rummaging for – and taking her own snapshots of – flat, all-over fields. After 1966 the only objects she allowed herself to render on paper or canvas were flat – a letter, say, or a picture torn from a book.
(Relyea 2004, p.78.)

Untitled (Source Materials) shows a variety of Celmins’s own photography and culled media images. With its layered, overlapping composition and high resolution photographic finish, this print achieves the credible trompe l’oeil illusion of many pieces of paper piled one atop the other, suggestive of the haphazard arrangement of materials lying about the artist’s studio. Although the source materials are all black and white images, the colour print reproduces creamy newsprint textures and the yellowing masking tape with which the artist manually cropped her images, shown attached to several clippings. Included are images with text, and one lunar surface image with numerical data and a scale along its margins. A grainy image of Saturn is the smallest clipping, on the very top of the pile, followed by further desert and constellation images in varying states of decay and damage. Celmins, in a 1991 conversation with the artist Chuck Close, admitted that her photographic sources are ‘very tiny and dog-eared’, and this is readily apparent in Untitled (Source Materials) (quoted in Bartman 1992, p.36). The Iris print technique foregrounds the delicate paper materiality of the source materials, reproducing their creases, folds, torn edges and tatty conditions in crisp detail.

Celmins, discussing with Close the use of photography as a methodology for her practice, stated: ‘The photograph is an alternate subject, another layer that creates distance. And distance creates an opportunity to view the work more slowly and to explore your relationship to it. I treat the photograph as an object, an object to scan.’ (Quoted in ibid., p.12.) Untitled (Source Materials) reproduces Celmins’s source materials at their actual size. When the artist utilises one of her clippings to produce a painting or drawing from its photographic information, such as Night Sky #19 1998 (Tate AR00163), that image is translated into a form that multiplies the scale of the original photographic object. The artist’s scanning of this object therefore involves enlargement, surface redescription, and a mode of simultaneous looking and drawing. Untitled – Source Materials reveals to the viewer the many potential starting points of that process.

Further reading
Susan Tallman, The Contemporary Print from Pre-Pop to Postmodern, London 1996.
William S. Bartman (ed.), Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close, New York 1992.
Lane Relyea, ‘Vija Celmins’ Twilight Zone’, in Lane Relyea, Robert Gober and Briony Fer, Vija Celmins, London and New York 2004, pp.46–99.

Stephanie Straine
June 2010

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Online caption

This pile of photographs, featuring images of night skies and ocean surfaces, are examples of the source materials Celmins uses as the basis of her intense monochromatic images. These images focus on small and individual specks in the context of vastness. Celmins's serial exploration of her subjects allows the artist to exploit the distinct characteristics of the variety of media she uses. The images seem fragile because they record a specific human glimpse through a camera which is ephemeral and frozen in time.

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