A Cincinnati Treasure

Noel Martin, 1922-2009

Mar 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Noel Martin, a lifelong Cincinnati painter and graphic-design pioneer, passed away Feb. 23 at the age of 86. In addition to formal training, Martin taught himself typography and graphics, and in doing so revolutionized museum publishing with his designs for the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) and his modern logo for the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC).

Martin studied painting, drawing and printmaking at the Art Academy from 1939 to 1941 and again in 1945-47. During the interval, he served in the New York City division of the U.S. Army, where he designed materials for Army textbooks.

In a 2007 interview with CityBeat, Martin said of this time, “I took to (design) pretty quickly,” adding that he learned more in New York than he knew at the time. It came back to him just a few years later when the CAM hired him, directly after his graduation, to serve as the museum’s first in-house graphic designer.

Steven Heller of The New York Times wrote in a Feb. 28 obituary of Martin: “With the ubiquitous branding and expert merchandizing of museums today, it is easy to forget that graphic design was once a low priority for them … (In 1947) most museum publications were staid and musty.”

With institutions such as CAM trying to persuade a lay audience of the radical brilliance of Abstract Expressionism — a feat that, at the time, was enormous — Martin’s elegant and beautiful catalogs helped ease the public into the museum. Martin’s talent was soon nationally recognized, and in 1953 he was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal exhibition Four American Designers. This exhibition was a catalyst for the end of dull theories about what was and wasn’t art. Through it design could be seen as an art, rather than just a trade.

Martin was commissioned in 1958 to revamp the pages of The New Republic. He designed logos and materials for such places as Federated Department Stores, General Electric and Standard Oil. At the same time, Martin’s work was included in museum and gallery shows around the country, proving that a working designer could also be a renowned artist. Over the past several years, Martin’s paintings and designs have found their way back into Cincinnati’s arts institutions, including the second cycle of the CAC’s Graphic Content in early 2007.

That same year, Martin had a painting retrospective at the Carl Solway Gallery, which allowed me the opportunity to meet the artist (I work at the gallery). For the exhibition Martin and the Solway team went through hundreds upon hundreds of paintings, which had been hiding in Martin’s studio, and selected 101 for the show.

Carl Solway often compares Martin’s career in the 20th century to Frank Duveneck’s of the 19th century. Solway, in a 2007 interview with Caroline Older of the Art Academy, said, “Martin is a Cincinnati treasure.” Indeed.