born 1939, Mook en Middelaar, the Netherlands
lives in Amsterdam
For the legendary Dutch graphic designer, artist, and educator Karel Martens, graphic design is not simply a project-driven pursuit that responds to a client’s specific needs but a craft, a personal and meditative daily practice. This approach is apparent in his iterative process, exemplified in his vividly colored letterpress monoprints, which he has made by hand for five decades using scavenged metal pieces on various types of found paper. It is also evinced by his longstanding interest in time and timekeeping devices, from wonderfully abstract clocks to 365 (2022), a year-long digital calendar commissioned by FRONT 2022 (viewable online at frontart.org/365) whose ever-changing and never-repeating numerals are composed of elements derived from
Several of those monoprints were on view at Transformer Station, including his earliest works from when he was a student in the late 1950s. For these he used the “furniture” of the letterpress printer—the structural elements used to “lock up” type into a tight, printable configuration, which are typically not used to print—to create layered experiments. More recent monoprints use found metal pieces, overprinted to create vivid color combinations and formal experiments.
Martens’s Icon Viewer, presented at the Akron Art Museum, was an interactive installation that translated a live image of audience members and the space surrounding them into dynamic fields consisting of thousands of multicolored circular icons. A trackball allowed the viewer to zoom in and out, adjusting the resolution and legibility of the projected image, which can range from a vibrating grid of flickering abstractions to a more clearly recognizable silhouette of themselves. Dissolving the image of the body into an infinitely variable matrix shapes and colors, Icon Viewer subsumes the figure of the human into the unlimited potential and joy of the craft of graphic design.
Karel Martens, 365, 2022, Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. This program is also supported as part of the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York.