[Text in the book AB UNO/AD UNUM, 1998. Published by the Groninger Museum, Groningen (NL); Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe (DE)and Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund.]

Katalin Herzog

Many small, three-dimensional diptychs, painted in white and black and black and white, their skin carefully inscribed with sharp lines in the opposite tone. They sometimes have a balanced or solemn expression, sometimes a teasing or playful one.

At first glance, such a highly succinct description of the series of Ones  created by Ton Mars seems sufficient, since the Ones  have an austere exterior. When seeing them for the first time, they therefore appear rather inaccessible. To experience and understand more of them, the viewer will first have to break their ice. Fortunately, the Ones invite the viewer to do so. They initially draw one’s attention by the strict black and white of their panels, the precision of their meaning, and the gap between the two parts. Once on the alert, the viewer will notice how much care and attention the artist has devoted to this series. Because of their ‘perfection’ and three-dimensional corporeality, they also radiate warmth and approach the viewer as small living entities. The Ones,  therefore, have an ambivalent, cool-warm nature that should first be accepted before the viewer can enter into their game.1


The effort viewers initially have to make for the Ones  will not be wasted, however. Soon, they will enjoy the shifting variations of lines and their combinations on the black and white backgrounds. After some time, the various meanings evoked by the Ones  will also appear. They show a light side and a dark side, as opened books whose ‘pages’ have been inscribed with line-like signs in a kind of cipher. These ‘engravings’ disrupt the serenity of the black and white planes, but they also create the moods that reveal themselves on the faces of the individual works. However, each work is not limited to just a single mood. The drawings on both panels are different; taken together, they constitute a paradoxical whole, like the old and young sides of a Janus face or the various traits within a single personality.

Interpretations such as these point to the experience of the ‘unity of opposites’ that the Ones  soon evoke, because the black and white and the various combinations of signs may be metaphorically transformed into the many unequal pairs of our lives. Day and night, mind and matter, life and death, man and woman, left and right, high and low, good and evil, profane and sacred, banal and transcendental may be easily linked with the Ones.2  Like the two panels, these temporal-spatial, existential, and cosmic twins may be distinguished from one another, but they cannot be separated without damage. They form an archaic interplay of meanings that provides an initial order in the chaos of reality.3 The boundaries between the areas of meaning, where transitions are possible and monstrous mixtures may emerge, are reflected by the gaps between the panels. Still, these works emphasize solidarity rather than transgression, because the panels are linked by the various configurations of the signs and all works may in principle be subsumed under the collective title One, Preface.  Since this collective title is always formulated in one of the European or Asian languages, each diptych can be addressed with its own name. Because of this, the image sometimes looks ‘readable’ for a moment, although there is no direct similarity between image and language. Here, too, ambiguity is carefully preserved, so that the works may continue to challenge the viewer.


The archaic interplay of meanings providing initial distinctions that accompanies the Ones  becomes more complicated when the viewer is familiar with the philosophy and working methods of the artist.  Because Ton Mars also plays a game—namely within his own system—in which many variations and transformations are implicitly present.4 When the artist made his first One  in 1993, not all possibilities this series would offer were revealed. The very first One  was created as a preliminary study for a larger diptych and was originally simply called One. The artist associated ‘preliminary study’ (Dutch: ‘voorstudie’) with the preface (‘voorwoord’) found in books, and the first title One, Preface  was born. Thm next four Ones, which paved the way for a number of works with larger dimensions, then followed in Spanish, French, German, and Hungarian. From that moment on, the road towards creating Ones  ‘in all languages of the world’ was open.5 Although Ton Mars has a strong craving for completeness, he will not set himself a systematic task; he does not want to draw a world map by means of the Ones.  He is after dialogues in many languages and signs that will only attain their specific qualities when they are realized in his own visual language.6

Since 1987, the artist has been developing monochrome works, usually in the primary colors and in black and white with line-like signs derived from geometric shapes. The basic elements—horizontal and slanting lines together with circle segments that constitute the signs—are very simple, but they can easily be expanded into a complex, expressive repertoire. All signs developed in this way are in principle ambiguous, and their associative power is strongly influenced by the color of the background on which they are placed, by the dimensions of the works, and by their organization into several panels.7 Sometimes, however, the signs seem analogous to letters of our alphabet and balance on the edge of readability, for example in the first One, in which the word One  appears in rudimentary form. In this way, Ton Mars approximates letter shapes without imitating them.

Sometimes, he also uses familiar symbols—for example a cross—which lose some of their ‘associative power’ within the new configuration of his work and almost become indifferent letters. At the same time, the private signs of the artist become clearer, although they never become readable. Through his signs, Ton Mars internally links the notational system of language to his images, but the titles also create an external link with language situated outside the image.8  Since a complete work only emerges when, during the creative process, a visually exciting and meaningful image becomes linked with the linguistic associations of a title. Therefore, Ton Mars creates all his works—and thusOne, Preface  also—in a particular language.9

In his oeuvre, linguistic and visual associations are based on a clear foundation. They alays emerge from the metaphorical linking of geographical areas and mental domains whose function it is to connect the banal with the transcendental. This basic metaphor is the creative principle that brings together all the ingredients in the works of Ton Mars. The tension and expression of the signs, the nature of the colors, the spatial effects of the planes, and the volume of the individual works invariably link up with the diversely developed basic metaphor to create joint language-image metaphors. However, the Ones  are somewhat different in this respect. They may be regarded as preliminary metaphors that anticipate more refined junctures through their archaic interplay of meanings and by taking as their theme areas of earth where different languages are spoken and various nationalities live. In their black and white planes, the Ones  provide a very global map of these areas and in their titles they refer to the various languages. Sometimes, the visual manifestation of the signs resonates with the sound or notation of the numeral one in a particular language and occasionally they also refer to the national flag of the area in question. The Ones  fan out across the globe and simultaneously assemble the entire world into the creative play of the artist. With his Ones, Ton Mars thus makes a journey through many geographical regions and various language areas. Without a fixed itinerary, he lets his inspiration draw him to all corners of the earth.


Small dimensions (32 x 24 x 10 cm per panel), the simple black and white distribution, and the basic nature of the numeral one all point to the place occupied by the Ones within Ton Mars’s oeuvre. They do not form new rules; instead, they more or less expand the game as marginalia, drawings in the margin which allow the artist to try things out for the benefit of other works.10 Their collective title One, Preface  also indicates that they serve as ‘prefaces’. The concept of the preface may mean various things in the work of Ton Mars. As far as their signs are concerned, the Ones  are preliminary studies for already planned ‘follow-up works’. They also appear as ‘pre-texts’ that prepare some aspects of the appearance and the mood of the other works without getting too specific. Sometimes, the Ones  are also prefaces for works that may be created in the future, or even works that may never be realized. In all of these functions, the Ones  resemble prefaces like those that are customary in books.11 They provide an insight into what is to follow and raise expectations that may or may not be met. As with books, where the preface is often written after the rest of the material, the Ones  look back on an artistic career of some fifteen years and make use of the knowledge and achievements that the artist has gathered and developed during that period.

The Ones  are thus produced by the oeuvre and in turn stimulate the development of that oeuvre.12 Each One  consists of two perfect compositions which, in conjunction, form an autonomous work. Some Ones  are solitary; others belong to a group, because they represent a linguistic family, for example the Scandinavian group of languages, or because they precede a group of follow-up works that form a thematic series. Three such series, with the collective titles Directions for the Center, Disclosures II,  and Disclosures III,  are linked with three groups of Ones.

The five larger diptychs (81 x 61 x 10.5 cm per panel) of Directions for the Center  are related to Ones  that pave the way for these works through their compositions, because, in addition to combinations of lines and circle segments, the little black and white panels also contain rising lines that together may be taken for a road or direction. This reference, which is still indirect here—since the road is half white, half black—clearly comes to the fore in the monochrome panels and contrasting signs of the Directions. However, the special effect of the basic metaphor that links geographical areas with mental domains is only realized by linking up the images with the individual titles of the Directions.  In these titles, the artist describes various attitudes of mind such as Desire & Devotion, Faith & Perseverance,  and Intuition & Experience, which correspond to shifting base and exalted aspirations and moods: the ‘victuals’ for the journey to the center.13 Thus, the directions already announced in the Ones  become apparent, but the exact position of the center, which may be understood both in a topographical and in a mental sense, is not revealed by these works. As in the Ones,  the Directions  therefore display a fanning out and simultaneously a gathering in, but this time of attitudes within the field of the

human psyche.

    Two series of Ones  precede Disclosures II  and Disclosures III. Disclosures II  contains four large diptychs (115 x 87 x 11 cm per panel). Both the preparatory Ones and this thematic series show compositions in which diagonal lines and circle segments have been arranged on both panels which together appear as horizontally placed V shapes. Each left panel also has a rising line that places the ‘pivot’ of the V shapes outside the center. This creates a complicated interplay of movements that may be experienced as flipping over in the black and white Ones  and as turning around in the white Disclosures II.  Three works of this series follow a similar system, while in the fourth the slanting line acts as a spoilsport by going in the opposite direction.14 The sometimes ongoing, sometimes obstructed, circling motion of the signs is complemented by the individual titles of Disclosures II.  These indicate social and religious characters or roles, for example Guide & Seducer, Teacher & Intruder, Prophet & Impostor. Their pivotings and turnings reveal the two-faced nature of such roles, in which positive values always contain their negative sides and may turn into their opposites under special circumstances.

Disclosures III  is the title of a large, as yet unfinished, series of diptychs (100 x 75 x 11 cm per panel). In creating this series, the artist has broken his self-imposed rule that a series should contain related compositions. He lets very divergent Ones  precede the larger panels and also changes his method of working in other respects . Whereas previous follow-up works were essentially duotone—monochrome planes bearing contrasting signs—the diptychs of Disclosures III  for the first time have three colors: besides a primary color they also contain white and black. The left panel of Artist & Charlatan,  for example, is white and has a blue sign, while the right panel is blue with a black sign. The separation of colors makes these works resemble the black and white Ones,  but in the Ones  the two panels are clearly apart, while at first glance the viewer cannot be sure in what respects the Disclosures III  panels differ. On closer examination, it appears as if the two panels collide or glide across each other; also, the viewer may have the tendency to cross their boundaries visually and to fill out one with the color of the other. Although in this case the artist has abandoned his predominant monochromism, these works do not make a ‘colorful’ impression, because—as in the rest of Ton Mars’s oeuvre—the colors remain tied to planes and lines. Although there are changes in relation to earlier works, a continuing leitmotiv in the oeuvre remains the system of individual titles. By assigning individual titles such as Artist & Charlatan, Worker & Dreamer,  and Player & Pilgrim  to the diptychs of Disclosures III,  the artist continues his joining of social and religious roles that may become two sides of the same coin in a moral respect.15 Together with Disclosures II, this series may therefore be regarded as an encyclopaedia of possible attitudes towards reality that may be realized especially within the life of an artist.


As we have seen, the Ones  excellently fulfil their role as preface in this oeuvre, since their division in two and their two-facedness enables them to represent anything that may be counted, divided, quantified, and qualified in a geographical, psychological, moral, and artistic sense. This ‘counting’ and ‘ordering’ originates in the archaic interplay of meanings alluded to before, which provides the initial distinctions and also points to opportunities for creating new connections. However, such ‘operations’ also form the basis for the cosmic dimension of the Ones,  because the way in which these works are created and thus ensure the expansion of the oeuvre is related to procedures for ‘world making’ as described in various creation myths. Plotines, for example, reserves the One,  the First,  for the Creator who overflows endlessly without losing substance and thus creates the cosmos and its order.16 As part of the Judeo-Christian creation myth, the Creator first divided a formless chaos and thus created the heaven and the earth, light and darkness, day and night. The result of this effort was the ‘first day’, after which counting—in short history—could begin.17

Within Western philosophy since the Middle Ages, the world making by the Creator has been related to the creative process of the artist. Initially, this analogy served to explain God’s creation on the basis of human building activities; later, it was applied to elevate the creativity of the artist to great heights.18 Nowadays, such ideas have become ideologies; the belief in the elevated position of both God and the artist has been lost. Still, we accept the creation stories as mythical explanations of the phenomenon of creativity. Besides explaining the incomprehensible production of new entities from the void or from an undifferentiated chaos that is the exclusive domain of the Creator, these stories present an image of human ‘making’ that is closer to us.19 And, although people still like to be secretive about it, in principle this process boils down to imaginative reworkings of what already exists, through the separation and distinction of substances, of ideas that are traditionally accepted, and then creating new mixtures and selecting the most valuable compounds. Thus, order and meaning are generated; a world is built and furnished that is a habitat for people. Dissatisfied with what they encounter when entering such a world of conventions, newcomers constantly build new worlds with the help of similar methods.

The description presented here of the philosophy and working methods of Ton Mars shows that he, too, uses his work to build a world that clearly stands out as his own.20 The Ones  fulfil various functions in this process. They show the oeuvre in a compressed form and weigh and consider the work done so far. But the Ones  also provide an insight into the future because they function as ‘little helpers’ for the artist that initiate and fuel his world making. So, they help Ton Mars to continue to expand his universe, in which he brings together lines, colors, spaces, and volumes with the base and exalted aspects of human existence in general and his own existence as an artist in particular.


1.  This first foray was inspired by an article by R. Barthes in which he describes Cy Twombly’s work in a tentative, exploratory fashion. See: R. Barthes, ‘Cy Twombly: Works on Paper’,  in The Responsibility of Forms, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1985, pp. 157-176.

2.   Ch. Osgood connects the principle of the metaphorical transformation of, for example, black and white to low and high with synaesthesia, the possibility to ‘translate’ the ‘dimensions of experience’ derived from the various senses. See: Ch.E. Osgood, G.J. Suci, P. H. Tannenbaum, The Measurement of Meaning,  Urbana, Chicago and London 1967, p. 23.

3.  A lecture by B. Verschaffel drew my attention to the fact that the described pairs indicating the major contrasts belong to the first meanings people used to distinguish their world. According to Verschaffel, the modern visual arts employ this archaic thinking as a supplement and a counterbalance to modern thinking. Lecture by B. Verschaffel at the De Actualiteit van het Sacrale  symposium held on 10 October 1997 at ‘De Brakke Grond’, Amsterdam. A manifestation of this type of thinking may be found, for example, in alchemy, where the mixing, separating, and remixing of basic elements leads to the creation of the ‘philosopher’s stone’, i.e. the insight into the transcendental.

4.  I have previously described Ton Mars’s artistic system in my article ‘Wege ins Zentrum’,  in T. Mars, Echoes & Boundaries,  Düsseldorf, Amsterdam 1994, pp. 11-21. See also: K. Herzog, ‘Voor dansers, Interpretatie van een triptiek van Ton Mars’,  in Feit & Fictie,  Vol. III, no. 3, 1997, pp. 67-82.

5.  All information presented here about Ton Mars’s work and methods has been derived from interviews I have held with the artist from 1993 to the present as part of our close cooperation in the Ab uno/Ad unum  project.

6.  Ton Mars regards his bringing together of all the languages of the world within his own visual language as an analogy of the endeavor to reduce all languages to one European language.

See: U. Eco, Europa en de volmaakte taal,  Amsterdam 1995.

7.  Ton Mars has not always made multi-part works. Paintings created since 1987 as part of the system described here consisted of one part. When the relationship between his signs and letters came to the fore, the artist began to produce works consisting of two to six parts.

8.  Titles of images bear a different relationship to images than textual titles to texts, since the first are ‘physically heterogeneous’ in relation to the image, because the artist uses both a verbal and a visual medium. See: L.H. Hoek, De titel uit de doeken gedaan, Amsterdam 1997, p. 13.

9.  All works by Ton Mars are dualities of title and image, which together form a language-image metaphor. The works are created when images find their complements in language as part of the creative process. The combinations subsequently reveal new possibilities for a series of follow-up works, both drawings and paintings.

10.  It is an interesting feature of illuminated medieval manuscripts that the free nature of the marginalia allows innovations that are not yet possible within the main illustrations. See: B. Stigter, ‘Een madeliefje wint het van God’, NRC Handelsblad, 9 May 1997.

11.  The insights used here about the various roles of the preface have been derived from H. IJsseling, Over voorwoorden, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche,  Amsterdam 1997.

12.  This circularity is typical of the entire oeuvre of Ton Mars. Works succeed each other in accordance with the constantly self-replicating principle of autopoiesis.

13.  For the interpretation of this series see: K. Herzog, ‘Wege ins Zentrum’,  in T. Mars, Echoes & Boundaries,  Düsseldorf, Amsterdam 1994, pp. 11-21.

14.  The divergent composition belongs to Teacher & Intruder,  a double role with which Ton Mars is quite familiar in his capacity as teacher. Besides the painted diptychs, this series also includes drawings with the same titles.

15.  The artist is currently working on a series of paintings as part of Disclosures III. Artist & Charlatan, Judge & Idiot,  and Player & Pilgrim  have already been realized.

16.  See: H.J. Störig, Geschiedenis van de filosofie,  part I, Utrecht, Antwerp 1972, p. 193.

17.  See: A. van Selms, De prediking van het oude testament, Genesis deel I,  Nijkerk 1973, pp. 19-45.

18.  See: K. Badt, ‘Der Gott und der Künstler’,  in: Philosophisches Jahrbuch der Görres Gesellschaft,  vol. 64, Munich 1956, pp. 372-392.

19.  A linking of cosmic and human creation can also be found in the writings of W. Kandinsky. He believes that a work of art is created in the same way as the cosmos: catastrophes lead to the creation of a symphony out of a cacophony. “The creation of a work is the creation of the world”.  See: W. Kandinsky, Rückblicke,  Berlin 1913.

20.  The Ones  are not the only types of works that form a ‘playground’ in the oeuvre of Ton Mars. Small works in painted tape also function as sketches in which he tries out new options. It is also not very likely that the Ones  in their present form will encompass all the languages of the world. Within this playful system, the Ones  too are susceptible to change, depending on new possibilities for transformation discovered by the artist.

Translated by: Paul Hulsman