Vija Celmins

Untitled (Web 4)


Not on display

Vija Celmins born 1938
Photo-etching and drypoint on paper
Image: 389 × 482 mm
frame: 557 × 648 × 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 4) is a one-colour photogravure print, with burnishing and drypoint, of a spider’s web on Hahnemühle Copperplate paper. It was printed and published by Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited), Los Angeles, in an edition of sixty-five plus ten artist’s proofs. The copy held by ARTIST ROOMS is edition number 34/65, inscribed at the bottom left corner 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 photogravure, writing that it is:

a process by which a line or tonal image can be transferred photographically to a metal plate in such a way that it can be etched in one operation without stopping out by hand … it is dependent on the characteristics of light-sensitised gelatine. The image is printed on to the gelatine, and then the gelatine is attached to the plate.
(Lambert 2001, pp.67–8.)

In this print the photogravure transfer of Celmins’s drawing of the spider web image is worked over by three further printmaking techniques. At close range, the tonally variable 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 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. The print occupies most of the landscape-orientated paper, with the plate centrally aligned. There is a deep plate mark along the edge of the image. As with Untitled (Web 3), this is a greyscale image, with the blackest areas of the print along the right vertical edge of the plate. This web stretches from the top to the bottom edges of the plate, its threads touching the left and right sides in only one place.

The marks made by the drypoint needle are methodical hatchings and cross hatchings across the entire surface. These echo the linear composition of the web itself. The threads of the web are so tightly packed towards its centre that their blurry outlines appear to merge together in places. The very centre is especially diffuse, the printing technique mimicking the gossamer fineness of these miniscule organic structures, enlarged in this work to presumably larger than life size. Untitled (Web 4) 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.45.
‘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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