Palace of Typographic MasonryPALACE about
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As palatial emissaries did Richard Niessen and Harmen Liemburg visit the modest master himself; Kees Maas. Out in the studio Kees Maas shared the tales of a craftsmen who enrolled into a chain of numerous workshops; developing the masterly know-how of transforming the mediocre into the ‘mesmerisable.’

Visiting Kees Maas in Ruinen, Drenthe, where he has lived and worked since 2017. The modest silkscreen master, born in Eindhoven in 1953, talks about his studies at the AKI in Enschede and the succession of different workshops where he silkscreened. First, the workshop of De Enschedese School, then those of Paradiso, the Rietveld Academy and his own workshop where he made Interbellum graphics with artists and printed hundreds of posters of himself and other designers. His iniatives such as Achter de Ramen and the Billboard are also featured. This brings into focus a career in which Kees Maas, while claiming to have run away from the responsibility of his own art, was an indispensable linchpin in the work of a large group of designers and artists.

“I didn't come up with the idea of going to art school myself, I wasn't very creative at all, but I was always dragged to exhibitions by my father, who was an amateur painter. Those were always somewhat sedate expositites that my father was very enthusiastic about. Gradually, I started looking at more modern art. I was lucky to live a stone's throw from the Van Abbemuseum. It was the heyday in the 60s and 70s under the directors De Wilde, Leering, Fuchs.... I originally wanted to study history but my father was very much pushing for me to go to the academy.... you hear that very little indeed. I fulfilled what he would have liked. He wasn't allowed to, and then I had to.”

“I then wrote to all kinds of academies and the AKI in Enschede was the only place that accepted me - thankfully, otherwise things might have gone wrong! This academy has been of great influence on the way I stand in art. Unique to the Aki at that time was the broad approach, the division between individual subjects had been abandoned, and that meant that you didn't have to focus on one discipline, but had to try out many forms of expression: paintings, records, books, photo exhibitions, applied assignments... That suited me very well and the guys I started working with intensively, such as Willem Wisselink and Paul Hajenius, also thrived on this broad approach.”

Magazine De Enschedese School (1980-1982), issue 9, September 1982

De Enschedese School

“Immediately after I graduated in 1976, Willem and I were asked to join De Enschedese School. That was an active workshop where a group of teachers and graduates were doing multidisciplinary work, commissioned or of their own initiative. Like-minded people. For us, it was a godsend. There were all these fascicles: film apparatus, sound studio, printing techniques. Here I very quickly threw myself into that screen printing.”

“With De Enschedese School, we started a record company. The 1000 Idiots label was a real punk and do-it-yourself expression. I was not punk, by the way, but New Wave; I was just too old and just too well brought up. New Wave was also the music of my band I had with Willem, the KEWI à Go Go Party. The Enschede School also started a subscription-based publishing business. This involved promising some 250 subscribers a number of publications a year that could have different outcomes. This meant anything from a painting in an edition to a ceramic breakfast set.”

“Eventually, we had to be out West more and more often. The record company was becoming increasingly important and everything took place in Hilversum, we often worked for Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool and none of us had gone to Enschede with the idea of sticking around there after our studies, so at some point we looked for a warehouse in Amsterdam where we could house the workshop and residences. We moved in 1981.”

Kees Maas, Paradiso poster for the band The Scene


“In 1984, I started working as a screen printer-designer in the workshop in the basement of ‘pop temple’ Paradiso. Martin Jongema, Max Kisman and I were there as an intensive trio with the three of us responsible for Paradiso's image on an equal level. Work had to be done insanely fast. Marten and Max were trained designers; they got that done. Designing, insofar as I can do that at all, I learned by hanging my head above their work. Because I was faced with it all day, I just saw what worked and what didn’t.”

“At Paradiso, I fell victim to my immoderate work ethic... it stopped in 1996. I was called to the boss: 'Kees, thanks, but we're quitting because the whole system is completely jammed'. I was naive, I should have seen that coming earlier. I made so many posters because the programming was getting fuller and fuller, the city couldn't handle that many at all: one poster wasn't even up yet when another one had to go over it. In the record shop, 21 Paradiso posters had to hang at the same time! Then Paradiso started making the monthly posters, which Experimental Jetset designed. The flyer came up, and then the digital media.”

Work by Roy Villevoye made for Interbellum grafiek

Interbellum grafiek

“Meanwhile, De Enschedese School was growing over our heads. Jan Dietvorst and I had drawn it to ourselves, but the two of us couldn't handle it at all. Jan had a job, and I had my work at Paradiso. Subscribers were promised six to eight issues a year but we couldn't manage that. When we quit, we still wanted to act as publishers but not with that compulsion and obligation in a fixed rhythm.”

“So in 1991 we started a printed art publishing company Interbellum. We made something and then we tried if we could get rid of it. That was the idea. And we also asked artists from outside for that. Actually with the idea that there are lots of artists who only have unica on offer that hardly anyone can afford.... we therefore made sure that there were also works by them in edition, which could then be bought for a reasonable price.”

“I invited the artists to come up with a sketch. Then we looked at it and investigated the feasibility of having it printed. Screen printing did require the image to be built up, layer upon layer.... but since almost none of them were experienced, I had them prepare at most two print runs and then we would go and print those and they already understood a little better how it worked and then we could work up to a maximum of five print runs. That was the limit, it had to remain fun.”

“I also used Interbellum to revive friendships. Now I could spend a few days with my own former teachers or befriended artists who otherwise also fell out of sight in the screen-printing workshop that had meanwhile been established on the Zamenhofstraat in Amsterdam. If you have a common goal, it is great fun to spend time together in a workshop.”

“I must say that making those prints was really fun on the one hand, but also quite time-consuming. I put a lot of time into it and also quite a lot of money, and all the costs fell on our shoulders. The artists got half the circulation. We saw sales gradually decrease. Companies shed their art collections, and galleries closed. The naturalness of buying something for the wall disappeared.”

Kees Maas at work in the silscreen workshop at the Rietveld Academy, 2018

Rietveld Academy

“I was lucky that after Paradiso I could immediately start working as a workshop manager at the Rietveld. Although I didn't think so at the time; I turned my nose up at the Rietveld's income, which was much less than at Paradiso. Coordinator of the graphic design department Henk Groenendijk had asked me before and I had told him very snobbishly: 'Sorry, but I'm not going to do that for that amount of money'. When I became breadless at Paradiso all at once, I had to go back to him hanging on!”

“I didn't consciously try to make it an active workshop, but I think it's characteristic of my approach. I always think that much more can be done than is being done at the time, which also does create a permanent sense of guilt.... I did not conceive of it - like my predecessor - as just having a duty of attendance in such a place. I'm still excited about that screen printing technique every day. It's a bit silly, but then I think: 'Gee man, you could do this or that, there's really a lot you could do!' If I can help others with this, I have a valid excuse to postpone my own work! I may work very hard, but I am still often disappointed in myself. When I sit eating out of my nose I think in that same time I might have made something beautiful.”

“I missed a newspaper or magazine within the Rietveld and from that lack eventually the Billboard was born. At first, we tried to make a zero issue of a magazine but that didn't go anywhere. A magazine often has a long making process and it stands or falls with distribution. Then I came up with that Billboard formula in 1998, that's where those drawbacks all fell away. And Jozee Brouwer picked it up immediately, she was interested in it and wanted to make it her final exam. I was very happy about that because I wouldn't have been able to start it up on my own... Then later came billboards of my own, from A to Z by myself, without contributions from others. But it started with the idea of a newspaper.”

Agata Winska, Achter de Ramen, May 2010

Achter de Ramen

“In 1997, I moved into BO 01, a residential complex on Borneoeiland in Amsterdam, for which the architect Hein de Haan had devised a display case. All kinds of committees had been set up for the building, and I was on the art committee that would take care of that display case. That was five or six people, but there is always only one who really picks it up, that's the case in every committee, and that was me. Everyone was already happy for it to go that way, no one objected.

“Hein saw it as a showcase for the residents because there were quite a few creative professions but nobody dared to show anything… so I started looking outside the door. That started running itself after a number of years untill a so called ‘curator’ arrived, Pieter Kusters, who was a tutor at the Rietveld. He also ran a private school and asked if he could give his students assignments to make a presentation for this window. I was very happy with that because it relieved me of half my obligations.”

“I never got any responses. The relevance of something like Achter de Ramen is hard to describe.... You have to think for yourself that it's better than when there's nothing there. It's actually a huge gift to the neighbourhood that something is shown there every month. But no, you never hear anything about that. I didn't get any reactions to my Paradiso posters or the Billboards at the Rietveld either for that matter, but I'm not so sensitive to that, I don't depend on it for my motivation.”

“I also know that the poster series for Achter de Ramen is actually a flag on a mudslide, such a marginal exhibition venue having such a prestigious accompanying poster, you don't come across that anywhere! But for me, it was a way to revive the design work that had come to an end at Paradiso. Because when that stopped I had still hoped I would get more design commissions... but there were zero. So I took the opportunity to make an unsolicited poster every month. Just because I did enjoy it, making those posters. Designing them is lightning fast, the execution is a bit slower... I then have to call myself to order: it benefits from a degree of nonchalance. You shouldn't get so antsy about it.”

Kees Maas, Charlie Kater poster, Achter de Ramen, January 2020

Working method

“As soon as I see an image of the art that will be shown Achter de Ramen, I already have an idea for a poster to go with it. Like when an artist hangs a very delicate work in the window, and that work is full of silverfish so that during the exhibition that work will be lost. Then I very quickly have the idea that by printing with far too little ink, I will run out of ink halfway through the poster, and you will still see the last word vaguely or not at all. In that way, I translate the approach of the work into how something like that turns out in silkscreen.”

“Now, for example, there is an exhibition in which someone has made a black framed portrait. Nomally you expect the silhouette to be black, but here it is the other way round, and the silhouette is a gradient of colours... Then I immediately know that the iris technique has to be brought out. And the silkscreen technique can do that so much more easily than the art lover who has to paint that from top to bottom! For me, that reference speaks for itself.”

“The strange thing is, I have always worked this way. On a lot of my Paradiso posters, I also took the completely arbiraire and futile band names seriously, thus 'catching' them. I didn't know otherwise or that was the method. At one point I worked with the designer Jonathan Puckey, and he said: I don't think there are any designers left who make work in which they refer to the subject... and then I thought: ‘Eh? Surely that's the only way to do it?’ That seems to be completely outdated! I still use it.... but what is the alternative? A very clearly recognisable visual language. Then I think: I must also have my ‘own visual language’... and then I haven't said it yet or I already make a complete fool of myself: ‘Why? It's not about me at all, is it?’ My visual language is perhaps that I always know how to use the silkscreen technique.”

Kees Maas showing his countdown billboard HISTORY OF ART PART 2


“Over the years, I have become much looser. I started to allow coincidences more. When I made the posters for Paradiso, I was much tighter in control, it had to be exactly as I had it in my head. But I saw the students at the Rietveld being much more candid with that and that was an eye-opener. I started doing experiments with paper stencils and turning the screen, for example. And overprinting... I can remember using two colours and making a mistake.... I wasn't using overprinting at all back then.... that came about by accident because of that mistake which caused certain things to be double printed ... which produced a very powerful result!”

“I have very little patience to sit at the computer and at some point I think: I'll put that text, I'll make sure it's spelled correctly and then I'll put it in one place on the poster and then I'll see what else I can do later with covers, rotations and overprinting. And that's actually what I did a lot: letting myself be surprised by things that might happen during printing. A good example of such a surprise is 'that countdown' billboard HISTORY OF ART PART 2. That is a kind of test image, a rosette. That has four different filled-in quarters. It's so perfectly centered that I can turn it all around. It doesn't have to be 180, but 90 or 45 degrees would also have been possible, and even then combined with a lot of covering, that produced a very surprising result…"

“Another example is making uniques by splashing on the screen, as in the Left Over Look. Those costumes constructed from those Oscar Schlemmer-like shapes, a painting technique from the stencil. It's liberating to see that you can make unica in that way with a reproduction technique... although it took me years to figure it out…."

Kees Maas in the silkscreenowkrshop at the Rietveld Academy, 2018


“Music plays an important role in the workshop and in my work. The music I play is consistent with my work. Simple rock & roll, blues, soul. Bass, drums and guitar. Rudimentary. Most of the posters I design are also very simple. It's ‘design-light'! It's not heavy. That is already done enough, I miss clarity then. For me, there is far too much tugging at gradients and the like to make it more palatable. I've completely had it with that. I've never been keen on it. I think I come from a generation with a simple visual language. With complicated things, I think: listen, my life is chaotic enough, I don't want to voluntarily look for that, I can't make that. With me, that's ridiculous.”

“The workshop is a dynamic centre. For me, that is completely natural, from my experience at De Enschedese School and Paradiso. There are a few things where I can't tolerate people next to me, but in most cases I like having the designer next to me because I can lose myself endlessly in things where a whole lot of people will say, 'Kees it's long gone'. While I myself know it could be even richer, and then indeed spend four hours mixing a shade of green. Fellow screen printer Paul Wyber once said: ‘the longer you print, the longer it will take, because you know better and better how it could actually be done’. You never save time.”

“Artisanal printing, sadly, is something no one will miss. They are the last remnants of rock and roll. It actually bothered me, my last years in Amsterdam, that I got a lot of work from designers that would far and away benefit from digital printing. But then they insisted that I print it because screen printing has such an aura... I suppose that helps the technique to remain relevant for a while... There is still the idea among designers: it's best if it's screen-printed, and that it came about in collaboration. But of course the public doesn't see that. It really is something for ‘connoisseurs’. And that eventually disappears, I see that at the Rietveld, I feel, this is also diminishing. People are reaching for the digital solutions faster and faster anyway. I think it's... yes it's going out. But for me it will remain relevant.”

View of the meadow from the window of the workshop in Ruinen


“I have just celebrated my farewell to the Rietveld with one last Billboard. I continue my screen-printing workshop here in Ruinen, albeit at a lower level. I am completely worn out. I get injection after injection in my shoulder but sometimes that doesn't help any more either, I have a worn-out back... It is very good that it has now stopped at the Rietveld. Maybe just a bit too late... maybe I gave just a bit too much to my employer. I don't want to be dramatic about that, it's fine, but... I can only do a few things now.”

“I don't overflow with social behaviour I think, but all the time I did look for people collaborate with me. For a while, I had a studio all to myself, but I noticed that I didn't go there enough, because I didn't enjoy it enough. Secretly, I was curious all the time about what would come out of my hands if I were in charge from A to Z, because I had to compromise with others all the time... but... no that own art, I put that off.... I'm a procrastinator.”

“Maybe I have also always run away from presenting something unique of myself. If I have the choice of doing something for the mob or something you can count me a hundred per cent on, I put off the latter for a while, and then I go and do that work for those others first. And I also think it's just too hard. Sorry, being a serious artist should be banned, it's just too heavy for people, it makes you gloomy. That's why, now that I've stopped at the Rietveld, and gone away from Amsterdam, it's also going to be a crucial period... I don't have any more excuses to bring up... now I have to do it all. We'll see.”