A selection of monotypes from the Museum’s collection currently on view highlights the unique qualities of this printmaking process and reflects an enduring interest in the monotype medium within the context of an extended investigation into one artist’s experimentation with the technique: the exhibition Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. To create a monotype, an artist draws with ink or paint on a metal plate, which is then sandwiched with a damp sheet of paper and run through a printing press. The medium typically yields a single print, also called an impression, which reverses the composition rendered on the plate. Whereas in most printmaking processes the image is fixed—carved into wood or chemically bonded to a lithographic stone—monotype remains manipulable until the very instant of printmaking. The artist can easily move the pigment across the plate’s smooth, un-incised surface, a ground that encourages gestural, improvisational, and fluid marks. The print reveals the primacy of tactility in these works including the tone and texture of pigment, loose luscious strokes of a brush or rag, and fingerprints along with other marks of the artist’s hands and implements.
The origins of monotype can be traced back to the 17th century, and the medium was later revived in the 1870s by Edgar Degas, who pushed the technique to radical ends. Twentieth-century artists took up monotype as well, and the group of works included here echo both Degas’s approach and his subjects, from Maurice Prendergast’s forcefully brushed umbrellas and faceless ballet dancers to Avery’s textured fields of color. For both Degas and these artists, monotype was perfectly suited to capture elements of mass culture and entertainment, the hustle and bustle of the city, and the landscape.More recently, monotype has been central to Elizabeth Peyton’s practice, soon after she became aware of Degas’s innovative use of the medium. In Lichtenstein, Flowers, Parsifal—a monotype that combines references to the practice of artist Roy Lichtenstein, the opera of composer Richard Wagner, and the still-life tradition in painting—Peyton explores the relationship between form and color, abstraction and figuration, history and art history. For a 2011 exhibition at Gallery Met at The Metropolitan Opera, Peyton focused specifically on Wagner, creating a body of drawings and monotypes that depict motion and sound. Here, Peyton collapses the spectacle of Wagner both literally and spatially with an image of a woman’s face covered in Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots. Peyton’s exploration parallels Degas’s own take on tradition from the Rococo to the classical landscape, as well as his depictions of café-concert singers and performers.
Perhaps the layered references and mixing of genres evident in both the monotypes of Degas and of Peyton is a response to the unique paradoxes and inherent hybridity of the medium. Formally, the process fuses drawing and printmaking—monotypes are drawings that have been printed. Monotypes preserve the trace of the artist’s hand but are ultimately produced through mechanical means: the printing press. In Lichtenstein, Flowers, Parsifal, Peyton perhaps thematizes or playfully comments on this ostensible contradiction: while Ben-Day dots are originally produced through a mechanical process, here, Peyton hand-applies them to the plate, then sandwiches that with a paper and sends them through the press to print them.
Time is another paradoxical component of the monotype process. While painting and drawing are mediums that depend on an accumulation of marks made over time, a monotype is printed at a particular moment in the development of the image on the plate, therefore endowing the work with a distinctive sense of immediacy. The artist must work relatively quickly, before the medium dries, and, as the plate can be wiped clean at any time in the drawing process, the artist may make wholesale changes right up until the paper goes through the press. Peyton discovered a new freedom and sense of openness in her work with the monotype process: “Paintings can get dense, working on them over time, and very fine. But the monotypes, it is really important, the way I have to do them quickly. It’s a technical thing, why it works out for me, working large on them. . . . ” While the process is informed by improvisational gesture and spontaneity, the printing press nevertheless fixes the artist’s marks. The resulting impression is an index of that final instant, a kind of arrest, a way of freezing the gestures of making in time. Artists across generations have been engaged by the possibilities and challenges presented in this paradoxical technique, exploring its particular temporality, and creating a dialogue among their monotypes over time.