Mart de Houwer


Mart de Houwer was an artist like no other.  In a relative short artistic career she dedicated herself to one topic: the line. Over a period of only two decades, from 1979 until her death in 1999, De Houwer created a highly individual oeuvre. With her serene drawings in pencil and ink, and working in a movement dominated by male artists, she carved out a unique place in the art world. Only recently her work is brought to light.

Mart de Houwer, sometimes called Marthe or Martha, was born on 29 March 1931 in Zonhoven, Belgium. Mart de Houwer combined her artistic life with a busy daily life. She worked on a local dairy farm during the day, concentrating her artistic endeavours in the evenings. De Houwer made drawings of the surrounding nature or simple stilllifes of household objects. Throughout her career she continued to make these impressions of the local landscape, although her true genius lies within abstract art.

In 1971, having the time to focus on her art, she attended the City Academy in Genk. She studied sculpture under Raf Mailleux and Ivo van Dyck. Ceramic art was taught by Piet Stockmans with whom she developed a close friendship. A large influence on her work was the artist Ado Hamelrijck. Hamelrijjck, an accomplished artist in his own right,  taught visual arts.  De Houwer was greatly inspired by his approach to art,  seeing it as the result of an active and spiritual process.

After an initial hyper-realistic period, with many landscapes and ceramic sculptures, De Houwer reduced the drawing to its most elementary form: the line. Inspired by the endless rows of pine trees in the surrounding forests , her early works are composed of consistent repetitions of line patterns in a minimal-looking visual language.  Gradually these black stripes, placed next to each other, filled large sheets of paper and canvasses.

In 1982, CIAP, the Society for Cultural Information and Recent Drawing Cabinet in Limburg, held De Houwers first exhibition. The local media recognised her work has as Fundamental Art.  Local Newspapers placed her work in line with Hugo Duchateau (1938). Duchateau, an artist from Limburg is one the leading representatives of Belgian Fundamental Art. 

Her show came only one year after the influential exhibition of the Peter Stuyvesant Collection (now known as the BATartventure Collection). In 1981 the Hassel Provinciaal showed this unique collection with abstract art. The exhibition introduced the ideas of Fundamental art to Belgium and showcased the leading figures in modern Dutch and international art, including Tomas Rajlch, Robert Mangold, Jan Schoonhoven, Shinkichi Tajjiri, amongst others.

Back to foundations

Mart de Houwer made her first artistic appearance amidst an evolving European art world. After being influenced by CoBrA, Zero and Minimalism, artists were now trying to find a new direction in their art. 

By the early 1970s several artists from around the world were exploring the same themes. In order to create something new, they returned to the basic starting point: the making of the art itself. Size, scale, colour, line, form, texture, material and the method of working, were being investigated and reexamined. A painting is considered in a strict sense: it is a flat surface, with no image and no representation, merely paint applied on a canvas. As a consequence the working process itself became important in a more conscious way. Prior to the act of painting, the artist starts with a thought-out plan, preparing the surface rigorously. Exemplary for this new approach are works by Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, Robert Mangold and Agnes Martin.

Fundamental art is not considered a movement nor are the artists from the same generation. What they have in common is a shared idea about art. They sought to bring art back to its essence: the material and the way it is applied “is” the artwork. As a result the artworks have little or no visible connection with the world outside the artwork, no representation and no deeper concept. Subsequently the artworks are minimal looking with limited use of colour: ‘silent art”. If there is colour, it is examined for its effects as a flat surface or as a line. The painted surfaces often give an impression of neutrality. The drawn lines on the other hand, bare trace of personality, replacing the thumbprint.

“In my work I have returned to one of the most primary elements of art, namely the line. The line is an autonomous fact for which the factors patience, effort and labor are decisive. For me it is not so much about artistic creation as an intellectual activity, but rather about graphic labor as such. The physical exertion leads me to psychic distraction. Creating these surfaces is a form of meditation for me, which brings concentration and tranquility.”

Mart de Houwer, c. 1982

mart de houwer the Millen House

Fundamental Art in exhibitions

One of the first exhibitions with a clear underlying concept connected to Fundamental Art was “Une exposition de peinture reunnissant pertains painters qui mettraient la peinture en question” curated by Michel Claura and Rene Denizot. It opened in the spring of 1973 in Paris and later travelled to Antwerp and Mönchengladbach. The artists Daniel Buren, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman and several others participated. Exhibitions followed in 1973 and in 1974, but one of the most influential was “Fundamentele schilderkunst / Fundamental painting” in 1975 at The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. This exhibition showed artists of the ‘new painting’ movement who were involved, first and foremost, with the basic principles of painting. They restricted themselves to anti-illusionist painting in which all compositional elements are absent. It showed works by Jaap Berghuis, Raimund Girke, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Tomas Rajlich, Gerard Richter, Robert Ryman, Marthe Wéry and others. It was the first time artists like Martin and Mangold were shown in The Netherlands. The exhibition gave name to Fundamental Art as an approach and had a great impact to the Dutch and Belgian  Art world.
In the same year of “ Fundamentele schilderkunst / Fundamental painting” another highly influential exhibition took place. In may 1975 the exhibition ‘Elementary Forms of Contemporary Painting and Drawing in The Netherlands’ took place. Here artists were chosen who focus on the reality within the actual painting and drawing. This exhibition included works by Dutch artists like JCJ van der Heyden, Tomas Rajlich, Martin Rous, Jaap Berghuis, Rob van Koningsbruggen, Jan Schoonhoven and Carel Visser, amongst others.


Mart de Houwer started late in her life with her artistic career. She created works in a distinct and labor intensive matter. Some of her little drawings consist over 4000 lines, while larger works have close to half a million lines, created over a period of multiple months.  Due to her personal approach, the labor intensity of the process and her short career, her artistic output is very limited. The total amount of her work is estimated to be around 150 individual pieces, including 3 large scale metal sculptures, 8 large drawings on paper, 11 square drawings and 7 works on canvas.

There are no written artistic statements, nor did she participate in influential exhibitions. Newspaper articles and recollections of befriended artists give some kind of insight in her mindset. After her death her studio was cleared out, what remained were fragments of her artistic bubble. Left untouched for more than two decades, now her archive and work is for the first time documented and organised.

Mart de Houwer’s artistic force lies behind the scenes, working in private. She placed herself alongside the art world, rarely stepping in plain view. She rather focussed on her art itself.

In the archive is one large pencil drawing from 1981 in which the artist gives a rare glimpse of her process and feelings. On the back she noted the used pencil: “8721 Stabilo swan:. In the same pencil she added a phrase: “Woorden: zeggen zo weinig” (“words: say so little.” ) It’s a perfect summary for Mart de Houwer as an artist.

Mart de Houwer the Millen House


1931_Born on 29th of March in Zonhoven (BE)
1971_Evening school for art
1980_Silver State Medal for Drawing
1984_The ministry of the Flemish community buys three drawing
1988_The province of Limburg buys a drawing for the new Provincial Home
1990_Travel to Carrara, Italy, to create sculptures in white marble
1999_Dies on April 24th 1999 at the age of 68 as a result of pancreas cancer.

| Ministerie van de Vlaamse gemeenschap
| Provincie Limburg, Provincie Huis
| Old Church As, Belgium
| Openair museum Bokrijk
| CIAP, Hasselt
| private collection, The Netherlands