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THE ART OF THE MONOTYPE; July 2011

By David Clemmer

The members of the Taos Society of Artists built their reputations as painters in oil, first and foremost. As well-rounded professional artists, most with traditional academic training, the members of the Society were fluent in a variety of media but only about half of the group applied themselves in any meaningful way to exploring the graphic arts. Of the Society members who worked with printmaking, three of them—E. Martin Hennings, Oscar Edmund Berninghaus, and Joseph Henry Sharp—worked extensively in the monotype medium.

Stated in the most basic terms, the monotype is a handmade print with an edition size of one. The process is used to create a unique image that is best characterized as a hybrid of painting and printmaking. Although the term ‘monotype’ was not coined until the late 1800s, the medium itself has been in use in Europe since at least the mid-17th century. The monotype began to attract a following in the United States in the second half of the 19th century, brought home by American artists who learned the technique while working or studying abroad.

Among the first Americans to become practitioners and promoters of the monotype were William Merritt Chase and Frank Duveneck. The Cincinnati-based Duveneck was an influential painter and teacher who studied and taught extensively in Germany and, later, in Italy. Both Chase and Duveneck were exposed to the monotype technique during their student days in Munich in the 1870s. Duveneck met his fellow Cincinnati artist J.H. Sharp in Munich in 1886 and the two became lifelong friends. Duveneck very likely influenced Sharp’s decision to start working with the monotype in the early 1890s. Sharp kept a press in his Cincinnati studio and had exhibitions of his monotypes in Denver, New York and Boston. By 1902, when Sharp began making Taos his regular summer destination, he had completed his work in the monotype medium.

Like his senior Taos colleague Sharp, E. Martin Hennings was also drawn to Munich for his European studies. Hennings attended the Royal Academy there between 1912 and 1914, returning to Chicago at the outbreak of World War I. It is likely that Hennings was also introduced to the monotype during his time in Munich, but it appears that he did not start producing them until the 1920s after he had become a full-time resident of Taos. Unlike Sharp, Hennings did not actively market his monotypes and they generally remained in his personal collection until financial necessity motivated him to start selling them in the 1930s. It is not yet known exactly whose press, if any, Hennings used to print his monotypes. Sharp once remarked that he had known people to produce fine results using a laundry mangle.

To a greater degree than any other member of the Taos Society, O.E. Berninghaus had an extensive background in the graphic arts. The St. Louis native began working in the printing business in 1890 at the age of 16 and by the time he made his first trip west to Taos in 1899 he had accrued a wealth of knowledge in lithography, etching and engraving techniques. Although no in-depth study has yet been done of the graphic work of the Taos Society artists, the evidence would seem to indicate, not surprisingly, that Berninghaus was the most prolific printmaker in the group. He owned his own press and apparently brought it with him to Taos. Berninghaus produced etchings and lithographs in addition to his monotypes and, like Hennings, the majority of his monotypes date from the 1920s. Both Berninghaus and Hennings were members of the Salmagundi Club in New York City. The club, which had its own press, regularly exhibited graphic works by its members and monotypes were included in these print exhibitions as early as 1881.

One central question regarding the monotype is ‘Why?’, or more specifically ‘Why bother?’ If the result is a unique image executed in oil or ink on paper why not skip the press and just paint a painting? Part of the answer is that the monotype process produces effects that are unique to the medium. The tactile quality of printed ink on paper is distinctly different from hand painting, giving the monotype a look all its own. Another aspect of the answer is mystique: There is an element of mystery and chance in all printmaking as the ultimate result remains unknown until the final step of the process is complete.

A significant component of the appeal of the monotype is its simplicity and directness. The medium requires that the artist work quickly so that the ink or paint remains wet on the plate. The monotype encourages spontaneity and invention and 'mistakes' are easily corrected. The artist paints or draws the image directly on a metal or glass plate with oil paint or printer's ink. Brushes, rollers, palette knife, fingers, rags or other implements may be used to manipulate the pigment. When the artist is satisfied with the plate it is run through a press and the image is transferred onto paper. Once the plate has been been run through the press there is not enough ink remaining to produce another print, except perhaps for a 'ghost' image which typically looks substantially different from the initial pull.

The monotype and the monoprint are distinct but closely related techniques. The monoprint utilizes a preexisting image, typically an etching, as its basis. J.H. Sharp was an accomplished etcher and he produced monoprints by printing a basic etched portrait and then wiping the plate clean of its black or sepia ink. He would then apply color to the etching plate and run it carefully back through the press face to face with the preexisting etching producing a color version of the image. The basic imagery of the monoprint can be repeated but the color application remains unique to each pull.

Although the monotypes and monoprints of J.H. Sharp, E. M. Hennings and O.E. Berninghaus constitute but a tiny portion of their total artistic output, they provide valuable insight into the character and techniques of each artist. As a medium that shares its pedigree equally with painting and printmaking, the monotype offered these pioneering Taos artists the best of both worlds. This singular collection presents a rare glimpse into this largely under appreciated and incompletely understood aspect of their work.


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