For the past five weeks, we have organized a series of weekly monotype printmaking workshops, Degas in Process: Make a Monotype, in conjunction with the exhibition Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty, on view on MoMA’s sixth floor through July 24. Taking Degas’s innovative use of the monotype as a starting point, these workshops are led by teaching artists—Justin Sanz, Sophy Naess, Neil Berger, Kerry Downey, and Bruce Waldman—each of whom brings a unique creative approach to their session and offers a glimpse into the sustained relevance of the monotype technique in contemporary artistic practice. Through a collaboration with EFA’s Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, a team of highly skilled printmakers led by artist Justin Sanz operates the printing press each week.
By learning the essential components of how to make a monotype, each participant is able to explore a broad range of applications for the technique, guided by the teaching artist and printmakers. Participants experiment with materials and processes to better understand the generative qualities of monotype in Degas’s art and its continued application today. We spoke to the artists and participants about why they choose to work in monotype. Here is what we learned.
Body and Press
In describing their individual approaches to the monotype process, the artists who led these workshop sessions speak of a relationship between their own bodies and the press. Naess thinks of her work in monotype as “collaborating with a press to make a painting.” The nuances of the marks she makes on the plate appear in the finished print, “yet there’s an element of surprise that occurs when it goes through the press.” For Berger, a sense of “mood and mystery” emerges through “the distance, the intervening technology, between mark making and the printed image.”
Downey takes this idea of monotype as a collaboration with technology one step further in describing printmaking as “an extension of the body, physically and psychologically—the bed of the press, the bleed of the print, the water bath, the press as a prosthesis or apparatus, and the paper and plate as surfaces responsive to touch.” Her comments seem to echo Degas’s friend Marcellin Desboutin who described the artist in 1876 as “no longer a friend, a man, an artist! He’s a zinc or copper plate blackened with printer’s ink, and plate and man are flattened together by his printing press whose mechanism has swallowed him completely!” In monotype the technology of the plate and the press is not simply a tool for reproduction; it places the artist’s body into a different but no less direct relationship with ink, paper, and pressure.
For Degas, as for artists working today, there are qualities inherent to the monotype process that allow for a high level of experimentation. The ink can be worked and reworked on the plate until the very last minute before it is put through the press. Applying ink to a plate allows for, in Berger’s words, “mark-making methods that are different from conventional drawing and painting, including rolling out grays with a roller and precise and crisp subtractive marks with a rag, thumb, pencil, or solvent.” Artists continually add and remove ink to play on the monotype plate with the relationship between positive and negative space. The areas that are left without ink show the luminosity of the paper in the final print. Naess describes this as a process of “exploring variables in an image.”
In our workshops we find that the spontaneity and surprise involved in working with monotype inspires creative expression in participants new to printmaking. It frees them from what Sanz calls the “preciousness of a mark” because they can work quickly, adding and removing marks on the plate. Sanz has found that, “the gestural/spontaneous nature of monotype opened up a world of looseness” that he now incorporates into all of his work. For Berger, monotype “rewards a quicker, bolder approach” which beginner students respond to because “they labor under the illusion, as do we all to some degree, that art has to involve a conscientious amount of work, planning and critical thought.” Participants describe their foray into monotype as “play with no rules,” encouraging both “the vulnerability of not know how it will turn out” and the “letting go of control” in working with the press.
These perspectives relate closely to the language used by curators and art historians to describe Degas’s monotype process. Its spontaneous and malleable qualities, density and breadth of tone, direct application of ink to the plate, generative potential for experimentation, and release from precise control over the finished print all drew Degas to the technique in the 1870s and continue to attract artists today.
We hope to see you on the second-floor bookstore for our final month of workshops!
Check here for more information.
Free with admission. Not appropriate for children under 10. Space is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Sign-up begins half an hour prior to each workshop (at 11:30 a.m. and 1:15 p.m.).