Vija Celmins

Untitled (Web 3)


Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Aquatint and drypoint on paper
Image: 380 × 482 mm
frame: 548 × 652 × 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 (Web 3) is a one-colour aquatint print, with burnishing, scraping and drypoint, of a spider’s web on Hahnemühle Copperplate paper. It was printed by Jennifer Turner and Carmen Schilaci at Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) in Los Angeles, where it was published in 2002 in an edition of sixty-five. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is edition number 34/65, inscribed at the bottom left corner of the print and signed and dated by the artist at the bottom right in pencil. 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. 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 AR00476AR00479). 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 curator Susan Lambert has described the basic premise of aquatint, which is an intaglio technique whereby the print surface is sunk beneath the areas that are to remain blank:

Aquatint is a method of etching in tone. The key to the technique lies in the application of a porous ground, consisting of particles of finely powdered asphaltum or resin. The acid contacts the plate where it is unprotected between the particles, thereby etching pits in the metal which gives a grainy texture when printed. The tone of any part of the printed image is dependent on the depth to which the pits are etched, so the design is built up in stages by stopping out areas once they have been adequately bitten.
(Lambert 2001, pp.60–1.)

This granular, etched surface quality is immediately visible in Untitled (Web 3). This is a very fine greyscale image with no opaque black ink areas. Lambert also notes that as ‘with line etching, continuous gradations of tone cannot be achieved with pure aquatint. After the plate has been etched and the ground and varnish removed, however, the flat tonal areas can be modified by the use of a burnisher in the same way as in mezzotint’ (ibid., p.61). At close range, the linear web structure, hovering centrally against an empty dark background, reveals the stroking marks from the burnisher and scraper tools alongside the drypoint needle’s etching, accumulating repetitive incisions across the plate surface and further modulating the aquatint ground with patterned linear traces. The lines of the web display not the crisp white of the paper but rather are slightly hazy, coated in a light grey tone so that the web appears almost to sink backwards into the darkness. Several individual threads extend to the plate’s four edges, some disappearing as if to suggest a potential continuation of the structure. It is not made apparent what the web is attached to, the viewer is shown only its suspension against the milky darkness. The web is simultaneously irregular and regular – the repeating columns of lines that lead to its empty centre are interrupted by wayward patterns and broken chains. The threads become more spaced out as the web enlarges, and towards the edges there are huge gaps between individual threads. Untitled (Web 3) appears almost precisely like one of Celmins’s series of charcoal drawings, such as Web #1 1999 (Tate AR00164), complicating the mechanical reproduction of printmaking with its variety of hand-drawn marks. The curator Samantha Rippner has written of the arrival of the web motif into Celmins’s restricted range of imagery:

Celmins’s webs arrive absent their makers: no obvious signs of life or its intrinsic expressiveness are visible. Yet we are left, ironically, to contemplate the product of a painstaking effort – by both the spider and the artist. This is because Celmins does not imbue the spider with iconographical significance, as other artists have done. She takes a more pragmatic approach, identifying with it as a fellow builder of structures that, although possessing an inherent constancy, are each subtly different.
(Rippner 2002, p.9.)

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.)

Further reading
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.41.
‘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.

Stephanie Straine
June 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 spider webs, allows the artist to exploit the distinct characteristics of the variety of media she uses. This meticulous, translucent web is typical of her apparently fragile, ephemeral images. These images echo the web-like construction of the universe, a further preoccupation of the artist. Celmins has explained: “Maybe I identify with the spider. I'm the kind of person who works on something forever and then works on the same image again the next day.

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