Motion – A Dutch graphic designer, artist and teacher, an independent-minded artist at the Kunstverein München

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 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.