The Ghost Print
October 15, 2015
Deep in a box in the works-on-paper vault, lies a ghost print, and it may not be the only one. There could be other ghost prints here. Many museums have them in storage. Our ghost print isn’t terrifying, but it is kind of strange. And it’s a perfect entrée into one of my favorite print processes, the monotype.
A monotype is a one-of-a-kind image that is painted (often with printer’s ink) onto a smooth flat surface, usually a metal printing plate, and then transferred by pressure onto paper, leaving a reversed image of the original picture. Although the monotype process is not designed to print multiple copies, an artist can print “ghost” images, each one paler than the last, if sufficient ink remains on the plate. This is how Mary Smyth Perkins produced Night Scene #1 and its ghost Night Scene #2 in 1907. Indeed, the only reason we know that it’s a ghost print is because we have both versions. Perkins, a student of Robert Henri, made this print of cows in a landscape at John Sloan’s studio, after dinner in the company of the Sloans, Henri, and George Luks. Several prints survive from this congenial evening.
In the 1880s, the monotype method had been revived by the French Impressionists and taken up by American painters including William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent. Making monotypes became quite popular among American and European artists in the decades that followed. Since Sloan (an avid printmaker) had a press and all the supplies required, his studio became the ideal place for his friends to experiment with the medium. On various evenings in 1907 and 1915 Sloan made monotypes with Perkins, Luks, Henri, Randall Davey, and the young Stuart Davis, among others.
Even without the ghostly element, monotype printing may seem like a strange undertaking, and only a handful of artists ever take it up seriously. Why paint something on a plate just to print it in reverse, only once? However, due to the variations in thickness of the ink and the reversal of the image, the monotype can be altogether different from the drawing on the plate. As the art critic William A. Coffin suggested in his 1897 essay on monotypes for The Century Magazine: “Sometimes the accidental effects add much to the beauty of the printed picture.”
One hundred years later, contemporary painter Mary Page Evans echoed Coffin’s assessment in contemporary language, explaining that “there are marks you can only get from printmaking…and surprises, things you don’t see until you print.” Evans made massive monotypes at Gravity Press in 1999, and in 2012 the Museum featured two of them in her retrospective exhibition here: Dark Garden #1 and Dark Garden #2. Evans made adjustments between the first print (now in the Museum’s collection) and the ghost (private collection)—moving elements on the surface and adjusting color, creating two very different prints with the same matrix.
Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art