Karel Martens – Motions

Kunstverein München

  • 04.02.2017. - 02.04.2017

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Karel Martens has ten hands for every finger. He’s an artist, a typographer, a graphic designer, a bookmaker, and an educator. He co-founded a school. He’s influenced thousands.

That said, Motion will be appropriately dexterous and tentacular – comprising an experiential exhibition of Martens’ work within a staircase and three rooms, which extends outwards through a series of discursive events in Munich, Amsterdam, Paris, Vilnius, and New York, as well as through a publication (co-published with Roma Publications, Amsterdam). Altogether, Motion will afford a compound view on an expansive practice, and chart a road map. Yet while all of that spans over 50 years of Martens inter-disciplinary activity, the exhibition will remain grounded firmly in the present (and future).

Of course, the exhibition will include some representative works – mono-prints of and on found materials, paper reliefs, videos, modular wallpapers, kinetic sculptures, a very early optical work. Consider all of that a contextual substrate that corroborates Marten’s responsive and systematic approach to color, format, type, and material. And his immense influence as an educator will also be centrally positioned within the exhibition, with a selection of publications by his former students displayed on tables Martens designed for the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, NL (the school he co-founded in 1998). Consider all of that a demonstrative charting of influence. Yet the primary focus will be on Martens’ most recent work, with several new commissions – wallpaper made up of multicolored icons, interactive video projections, a massive abstract clock. These are being produced for the exhibition, while existing works are being specially reconfigured. It will be immersive – layered with color inversions over entire spaces, multiplied by real-time mirroring, and attuned with technique, systematic seriality, conceptual operations, and a multi-functional zone.

A tendency to reconfigure will also extend to the new publication Martens is producing with Julie Peeters, which will be available at the opening.

The publication will also fuel an array of satellite events, which will begin in Munich and culminate in New York. Each is being specifically tailored to the conditions of each venue, and to different aspects of Martens’ practice – from Martens’ influence as an educator (4 February, Kunstverein München, Munich) to the reference material Martens collects and generates around his work (San Serriffe, the Rietveld Library, Amsterdam), from the unrealized proposals Martens injected into his new publication (Section 7, Paris) to Martens’ accounting of past and most recent work (CAC Reading Room, Vilnius). All of this will culminate, openly, in a final event through which the entire Karel Martens project may be discussed and extended, simultaneously (P!, New York).

In other words, Motion is not intended to display Martens’ practice, but instead as an embodied demonstration of his method.

Karel Martens ist ein Tausendsassa und hat überall seine Finger im Spiel. Er ist Künstler, Typograph, Grafikdesigner, er stellt Bücher her und ist in der Lehre tätig. Er war Mitbegründer einer Schule und hat eine Vielzahl von Menschen beeinflusst.

Deshalb wird Motion entsprechend vielschichtig und rhizomatisch sein – sie besteht aus einer auf seiner Praxis fußenden Ausstellung seiner Arbeit, die sich sowohl über das Treppenhaus und drei Ausstellungsräume erstrecken wird als auch darüber hinaus getragen wird durch eine Reihe von diskursiven Veranstaltungen in München, Amsterdam, Paris, Vilnius und New York sowie einer dazu erscheinenden Publikation (in Zusammenarbeit mit Roma Publications, Amsterdam). Alles in allem wird Motion einen vielfältigen Blick auf ein ausgedehntes Schaffen eröffnen und einen Wegweiser durch sein Werk liefern. Und während Motion einen Bogen über 50 Jahre der interdisziplinären Aktivitäten des Künstlers spannt, wird die Ausstellung doch fest in der Gegenwart (und Zukunft) verankert sein.

Natürlich wird die Ausstellung einige repräsentative Werke beinhalten – Mono-Prints von und auf gefundenen Materialien, Papierreliefs, Videos, modulare Wallpapers, kinetische Skulpturen, ein sehr frühes optisches Werk. All dies ist als kontextuelles Substrat anzusehen, das Martens‘ eingängige und systematische Herangehensweise an Farbe, Format, Typografie und Material bekräftigt. Auch sein immenser Einfluss als Lehrer wird einen zentralen Platz innerhalb der Ausstellung einnehmen, indem eine Reihe von Publikationen seiner ehemaligen Studentinnen und Studenten auf Tischen gezeigt wird, die er für die Werkplaats Typografie in Arnheim, NL (die Schule, die er 1998 mitbegründete) entworfen hat. All das wird sein Wirken und seinen Einfluss veranschaulichen und nachzeichnen. Das Hauptaugenmerk wird jedoch auf Martens‘ aktuellstem Werk liegen, das einige neue Auftragsarbeiten umfasst – gewebte Textilien, interaktive Video-Projektionen, eine riesige abstrakte Uhr. Diese Arbeiten werden speziell für die Ausstellung angefertigt, während bereits bestehende Werke eigens dafür rekonfiguriert werden. Die Ausstellung wird alle Sinne ansprechen – ganze Räume werden mit Farbinversionen überzogen, durch eine Echtzeit-Spiegelinstallation vervielfältigt und mit unterschiedlichsten Techniken, systematischen Serien, konzeptuellen Verfahren und einem multifunktionalem Bereich angefüllt sein. Die Tendenz zur Rekonfiguration wird sich auch auf die neue Publikation erstrecken, die Martens zusammen mit Julie Peeters gestaltet und die zur Eröffnung erscheint.

Die Publikation wird sich auch in einer Reihe von begleitenden Veranstaltungen fortsetzen, die in München beginnen und in New York gipfeln werden. Jedes Event wird sowohl eigens auf die speziellen Gegebenheiten der Örtlichkeiten zugeschnitten als auch auf die unterschiedlichen Aspekte von Martens‘ Wirken. Sie behandeln seinen Einfluss als Lehrer (4. Februar 2017, Kunstverein München), das Referenzmaterial, das er um seine Arbeiten herum sammelt und produziert (9. Februar 2017, San Serriffe, die Rietveld Bibliothek, Amsterdam), die noch nicht umgesetzten Projektideen, die Martens in seiner neuen Publikation behandelt und einen Überblick über sein gesamtes Werk. All dies wird zu einem letzten Event führen, bei dem das gesamte Motion-Projekt gleichzeitig diskutiert und erweitert werden kann.

Mit anderen Worten, Motion ist nicht dazu gedacht, Martens‘ Arbeitsweise auszustellen, sondern vielmehr als Verkörperung seiner Methode.


Von Suzanna Treumann 14. Mar 2017

When going up the stairs and into the exhibition, the multimedia world of Karel Martens unfolds itself. I am accompanied by wallpaper with tiny colorful, intricate icons on a white background. Alongside the next flight of stairs there is another wallpaper in pastel-colored vertical stripes, varying in width. The colors aren’t mixed, but created by printing six colors over one another. Then I enter a big space covered in black and white lines, in uneven widths that do not seem to depict anything. In fact, the wallpaper represents corals that were abstracted to the point that you cannot see them with the naked eye. They are zoomed out and shown as a linear grid.

Karel Martens has dedicated two display cases to his facetiously whimsical collections of odd things: objets trouvés, clocks, wool bobbins and a number of up-cycled self-fabricated pieces. One can easily imagine the artist scavenging, collecting and honoring the existence of this frivolous hodgepodge of rare colorful treasures over the course of his extensive career.

The black and white wall has a large door opening, which serves like a portal leading to the next space. There, small and colorful monotypes (singular prints) are spread out on white walls. They radiate. They have a monumental feeling to them. Their compositions are as playful as they are precise. There’s something also quite Dutch about them, which reminds me of my roots in Holland, and my grandfather, Otto Treumann (1919-2001), who was a pioneering graphic designer in his day. My grandfather’s work was primarily influenced by the Swiss Style and the Bauhaus.

At the opening of the exhibition at Kunstverein München, I went up to meet Karel Martens to ask him if he had personally known Otto Treumann. And indeed, he said he had. My grandfather had actually helped him in his career; as a jury member he had awarded him a prize! I can understand why my grandfather appreciated Karel Martens work. Born 20 years later than my grandfather, Karel Martens continues to work in the tradition of Dutch graphic design and brings it to the Now.

When my grandfather established his practice, in the late 1940’s, there were only a few graphic designers, and it was a very different profession. Everything was of course analogue, and the range of colors was limited. My grandfather was engaged in experimenting and inventing, not only at his drawing table, but also working together with the printers and experimenting with the printing process itself. By reprinting and thereby superimposing a limited number of colors, he managed to create new variations of color. I see how Karel Martens took this technique to the next level in his pastel colored wall paper and in the monotypes of recycled objects.

These ‘upcycled’ monotypes in fresh colors have a rather mesmerizing effect. Little metal rings, small lattice works and Mechano strips are used as print work to transfer ink - with a classic screw press - on recycled cards. The metal pieces he used for printing are demonstratively exhibited on an adjacent wall. The bright colors, yellow, magenta and cyan blue, are printed layer over layer on cards from archives. Some of these cards are from the archive of the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam.

Some have French texts on them, like the one that says: “impôt” and “travailleur” (employee, tax) which seems to mock bureaucracy. Karel Martens’ work reveals a humorously anti-authoritarian character as both a teacher and in his art. He teaches at Yale and at the two-year graphic design master’s program Werkplaats Typografie, which he cofounded in 1998. For Martens, teaching is about “giving and taking.” In an interview, he said that he teaches his students to deal with their abilities in unconventional ways.

The monotypes are surrounded in white. It is this non-object, this space that I think designers are very aware of. It makes texts readable, and signs visible. This goes for the wallpaper as well as for the monotypes of little metal objects he found on the street. As he said himself in an interview, he found them because he was looking down, searching, but also adding "I'm not a negative person." The work looks cheerful; there is a joy in finding treasures that others would overlook.

In the last room, a camera films the viewer in motion, and projects the infinitely rendered outcomes as colorful, intricately designed icons onto a screen. As an interactive element in the show, it makes one feel part of the design. And that is a very important feature of design. It is created for people to live with and to use. Even though they are quite bold, Martens’ designs have a friendly and inoffensive quality about them. All is playful and humorous.

He challenges the viewer to think that maybe there's no more need for separations, for categories. There are analog pieces and digital worlds made up of analog information. If anything, this experienced artist is showing us that boundaries are disappearing; that we can get inspired by one idea, to use in the next project and in the next medium. There's a sense of rising above the material, that young artists can draw inspiration from.

The exhibition conveys a sense of craftsmanship both in the monotypes which Karel Martens printed by hand on an old letter press, as in his more recent digital work. That is what makes the exhibition so interesting; the time frame and how we get to see the work evolve and expand over time while the incessant growth of opportunities redefine the medium of typography. Karel Martens’ exhibition is of a wonderful clarity and unity, bringing together the many venues he has taken in researching the medium of typography.

Suzanna Treumann is an artist from the Netherlands who reflects on life through her paintings and drawings.