Edgar Degas, “Factory Smoke (Fumées d’usines)” (1877–79), monotype on paper, plate: 4 11/16 x 6 5/16 inches, sheet: 5 13/16 x 6 13/16 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1982 (all images courtesy Museum of Modern Art) (click to enlarge)

The first picture that caught me up short was “Factory Smoke” (1877–79), hanging alone on a freestanding wall in the middle of the gallery. The image, on a slip of paper barely 5 by 6.5 inches, is virtually formless — brushy washes of gray pigment impersonating four diagonal columns of smoke, rising from the bottom edge as they broaden and flatten into a miasmic haze.

There is only one factory chimney visible, in the far distance on the far right, a skinny stroke of the brush. The other three plumes start where the paper starts. They could be from wildfires or smoldering bomb craters, prefiguring the charred moonscape that enormous tracts of France would become in the next century’s World Wars.

Edgar Degas, “Woman Reading (Liseuse)” (c. 1880–85), monotype on paper, plate: 14 15/16 x 10 7/8 inches, sheet: 17 7/16 x 12 13/16 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Rosenwald Collection, 1950 (click to enlarge)

The image is anomalous but not the sensation of disorientation and discovery it imparts. Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, an exhibition devoted to the artist’s monotypes, is revelatory even if you’re acquainted with the ins and outs of the work it covers. If anything, it is a reminder of the unforeseen crossroads where materials can lead an artist.

The exhibition’s press release describes the monotype as a process that “involves drawing in black ink on a metal plate that was then run through a press, typically resulting in a single print.” Degas, over the course of making 300-plus monotypes, developed “a new repertoire of mark-making that included wiping, scraping, scratching, fingerprinting, and rendering via removal.”

The exhibition’s organizers, Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, with Karl Buchberg, Senior Conservator, and Heidi Hirschl, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, have divided the artworks into four general categories — “Modern Life”; “Backstage at the Ballet and in the Brothel”; “Bathers”; and “Landscapes” — though the hanging mixes them up a bit. The last gallery in the show, “Consequences,” displays a selection of late paintings and drawings that bear the influence of Degas’ multifarious monotype techniques.

The mid-19th-century redesign of Paris executed by Baron Haussmann for Napoleon III created the idea of city-as-spectacle, and so it was with Degas’ shifting images of life as he saw it. Of the four categories listed above, the only one that is missing some element of theatricality is “Landscapes.” Even the bathers, because they’re typically engaged in some form of action — toweling, reading, dressing — often with their heads lowered or their backs to the viewer (simultaneously intimate and distanced), they can easily be reimagined as actresses taking instructions from a movie director (as opposed to, say, Pierre Bonnard’s wife and model, lying stock-still in her tub).

Edgar Degas, “Autumn Landscape (L’Estérel)” (1890), monotype in oil on paper, plate: 11 7/8 x 15 5/8 inches, sheet: 12 1/8 x 16 1/16 inches, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California. Museum Purchase, B. Gerald Cantor Fund (click to enlarge)

The brothel scenes are the earthiest in the show, but like the ballet pictures, they take the realm of artifice as their theme, a floating world where prostitutes audition for their clients and then play whatever role is required of them. The peach-kissed pastels depicting the ballerinas may feel a world apart from the smudged inks and acid colors that define the sex workers, but as materials applied to a surface, each acts as a correlative for the surface theatricality, bedazzling or besmirched, that’s being trotted out for display.

Monotypes are all surface, all skin, quickly brushed onto metal or glass before the ink dries — no labor-intensive carving, no multistep acid bath as required by other printmaking techniques. Degas, ever the experimenter, riffed on this process, adding pastel and other media to the printed image, embellishing the surface with more surface.

The speed and slickness of the procedure, often yielding blurred, unpredictable results, can be likened to photography, which Degas used and understood. In fact, the wall text for the gallery displaying the landscapes from 1890 tells us that Degas had taken a “twenty-day excursion by horse and carriage through the Burgundy region of France [and] sought to capture the landscape as he had seen it from the moving carriage.” (Degas later said that his idea for the landscapes came as he was “looking out from the door of a moving train.”)

The text adds that for this series “Degas used oil paint—an innovation in printmaking—embracing the possibilities of color. The fluid paint ran under the pressure of the press, which introduced an element of chance,” taking the prints to the brink of total abstraction and placing them “among the most radical works of their time.”

Edgar Degas, “Autumn Landscape (L’Estérel)” (1890), monotype in oil on paper, plate: 11 7/8 x 15 3/4 inches, sheet: 12 1/2 x 16 1/4 inches, Private collection (click to enlarge)

Degas arguably went as far as, if not farther than, any painter of the Modern era in redefining what makes a work of art. Once an acolyte of the supreme academician Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, by the time Degas was in his mid-50s he had put aside the unsurpassed elegance of his early work for the ragged, propulsive energy of chance smears of pigment.

It is instructive to compare these works with the contemporaneous views of Mont Sainte-Victoire painted by Paul Cézanne. Degas was five years older than Cézanne and outlived him by eleven. The latter’s compositions, the canonized precursors to Cubism, are architectonic, built up from sturdy, layered brushstrokes, while the colors in Degas’ monotypes spill across the page in pools and smudges, the shapes more or less coalescing on their own.

Even Cézanne’s watercolors, as minimal as they are, hit just the right marks to uphold the picture’s structure, while in Degas’ monotypes, elements such as the solid green pours of paint flooding the lower left corner of “Forest in the Mountains (Forêt dans la montagne)” (c. 1890) — seem to materialize without intervention from the artist.

Edgar Degas, “Forest in the Mountains (Forêt dans la montagne)” (c. 1890), monotype in oil on paper, plate: 11 13/16 x 15 3/4 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Louise Reinhardt Smith Bequest (click to enlarge)

As forward-thinking as they are, Cézanne’s paintings are still windows onto a highly constructed, classically idealized world. In the most extreme of Degas’ landscapes, such as the two impressions of the same plate, both titled “Autumn Landscape (L’Estérel),” from 1890, the monotype is a thing, a stained, mottled sheet of paper bearing, perhaps, a passing resemblance to trees, mountains and sky.

The two versions of this image are like before-and-after views of the Garden of Eden, one lush, one arid, but both self-evidently pigment on paper. Like the ballerinas and the prostitutes, they operate on a surface membrane that bonds observation, memory, and imagination to the act of art-making, with the interaction between the paper and the press determining the final image as much as the artist’s manipulations and intent.

It’s well known that Degas bridled at the term Impressionist, preferring Realist instead, and these fleeting, atmospheric landscapes, stripped to their smeary material nakedness, are about as real as you can get.

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through July 24.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.