Vija Celmins has been known since the 1970s for memorable subjects—seas, deserts, nocturnal skies, spider webs—she renders in a variety of media. Celmins’s retrospective at the Secession is her first solo exhibition in Austria, for which she has selected over seventy works of graphic art from five decades; it surveys this strand of her oeuvre from work she created as a student in the early 1960s to several recent editions that have never been on public display.
Celmins uses images from photographs and found printed matter, stripping the sources of their original contexts and reassembling them in a new medium. The repetitive interpretation of a small number of motifs shifts attention from the image to the material for a probing examination of its specific qualities and effects. Printmaking thus occupies a central position among the many media Celmins works with, on a par with drawing, painting, and sculpture.
The prints, for which Vija Celmins scratches copper plates, incises wood surfaces, and draws on stones, illustrate her abiding interest in the various processes and making things by hand. Her exploration of traditional printmaking techniques and their potential is sustained by her outstanding skills. In the 1970s, she started with lithography, a planographic process that a strong affinity to drawing; starting in the early 1980s, she focused on intaglio processes: etching, mezzotint, and woodcutting. The most prolific genre in her printed oeuvre is the mezzotint, for which white areas are scraped out of the printing plate—the deeper the brighter—to produce a wide range of velvety halftones: an ideal technique for Celmins that allows her to translate her black-and-white photographic sources into subtly nuanced shades of gray.