Dutch Graphic Design Master Karel Martens Opens His First Solo U.S. Exhibition

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By Aileen Kwun / Published by Dwell
New Yorkers, you have two weeks to see "Karel Martens: Recent Work," on view at Chinatown gallery P! through October 30.

After a program-packed, critically praised, four-year run, New York's experimental exhibition space P!, on Chinatown's Broome Street, will be showing its final season next year. Founder and director Prem Krishnamurthy has kicked off the concluding set of shows with a solo exhibition of recent works by legendary Dutch graphic designer, artist, and educator Karel Martens, who has been at it for nearly 60 years. We spoke with Krishnamurthy, who's also a graphic designer, to discuss Martens's process-driven works and catch a glimpse of what's in store for P! in 2017.

Dutch Graphic Design Master Karel Martens Opens His First Solo U.S. Exhibition - Photo 1 of 4 - Karel Martens, <i>Untitled</i>, 2016. Letterpress monoprint on found card, 5x7.75 inches.

Karel Martens, Untitled, 2016. Letterpress monoprint on found card, 5x7.75 inches.

You first worked with Karel Martens for your inaugural show at P!, the 2012 group exhibition "Process 01: Joy," which also featured artists Chauncey Hare
and Christine Hill. How did the idea to work together again come about, and had the two of you been collaborating in the time intervening?

Karel and I have worked together on a number of projects in the past years. When I began organizing the final year of P! on Broome Street around the end of 2015, I realized that we had not yet actually mounted a solo show with Karel—despite his essential place in the gallery's program. So I invited him to create a show here, which he graciously accepted, beginning a nearly year-long process. This was an opportunity for him to develop new work specifically for the exhibition at P!, which is what has made this project so exciting and successful.

Dutch Graphic Design Master Karel Martens Opens His First Solo U.S. Exhibition - Photo 2 of 4 - Karel Martens, <i>Three Times (in Blue and Yellow)</i>, 2016. Painted aluminum, acrylic, 3D printed components, electronic timers, motors. 40x12x6 inches. Edition of 10.

Karel Martens, Three Times (in Blue and Yellow), 2016. Painted aluminum, acrylic, 3D printed components, electronic timers, motors. 40x12x6 inches. Edition of 10.

What most fascinates you about these recent pieces by Martens, and how might they relate to his larger body of work, which spans six decades?

This show represents the convergence of multiple strands of Karel's thinking over the past years. In my mind, this can be summed up by saying that it's focused on time, color, and pattern. Each of the works looks at these phenomena in a different way—from Three Times (in Blue and Yellow), a kinetic clock sculpture, which has a long history in Karel's work going back to the 1960s; to the A4 Wallpaper project, which is a kind of analogue pixel kit; to the interactive work, Icon Viewer, an extension of his custom icon language through participation and technology; and of course his signature letterpress monoprints, which have continued to develop and have become, in my opinion, even more beautiful.

What fascinates me most is the long duration of Karel's projects and working method, and how coherent it has been over time while still changing. For me, it represents a counter-argument to the "hustle" of contemporary art and design practice, which is too often about overproduction and fast results. Karel's work, across media, comes from a meditative place, yet, through this, achieves a visual effect that is inimitably stimulating.

Dutch Graphic Design Master Karel Martens Opens His First Solo U.S. Exhibition - Photo 3 of 4 - Karel Martens, <i>Icon Viewer</i>, 2015. Software application. Edition of 5.

Karel Martens, Icon Viewer, 2015. Software application. Edition of 5.

I'm intrigued by the scale of Martens's works, specifically the monoprints, which have become iconic of his personal practice. These have been a recurring medium for him, and often produced by overprinting geometric compositions onto discarded catalog cards from institutions and museums. Could you tell us a bit more about the significance of that provenance?

Karel often works in series with his monoprints; he'll find or acquire a set of cards or previously printed materials, and then use them for his next set of works. This has been the case with the catalogue cards from the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (which he printed on starting in the 1990s), catalogue cards from the Moravian Museum in Brno (which he received as a gift in the early 2000s), and these two recent series which are printed on Belgian registration and tax cards, respectively. 

He has mentioned to me that he appreciates these new card sets for their smaller scale and intimacy; I think of them as being quite "jewel-like." Also, the tax cards have an elongated aspect ratio (nearly 3:2) that I know Karel likes. In his recent interview with the New York Times, he has also discussed how the typewriter typography on these is like a kind of concrete poetry—the poetry of administration.

Dutch Graphic Design Master Karel Martens Opens His First Solo U.S. Exhibition - Photo 4 of 4 - Karel Martens, A4 Wallpaper, 2013/2016. System of offset printed sheets using six colors overprinted to produce 20 colors in nine forms each. 180 sheets of paper, offset printed (each 11.75x8.25 inches).

Karel Martens, A4 Wallpaper, 2013/2016. System of offset printed sheets using six colors overprinted to produce 20 colors in nine forms each. 180 sheets of paper, offset printed (each 11.75x8.25 inches).

This must be a bittersweet moment for P!, which is now entering its final season. What's next? Any big plans or celebratory programming in the works?

It's not bittersweet for me! Actually, I'm happy that the program will end on a high note, as I've always intended. We're already planning our final program at P!, which will take place at the end of May 2017. It'll be a launch of a conceptual real estate project by Wong Kit Yi, for which we're planning an investors events, followed by a blow-out party. 

Something has to end for new things to begin.