Katie Murken’s Continua


In 1704, Isaac Newton published, Optics: or a treatise on the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light. The book, a collection of experiments and deductions, is considered the first true study of relationship between light and color.

On January of 1996, Joan Rettalack’s book, MUSICAGE: Cage muses on Words, art, music, was released by Weslyan University Press. Published a few years after John Cage’s death, the book is a kind of transcription of long taped conversations that meander and parse any number of topics, providing a delightful insight into the mind of the late master of chance and beauty.

I thought it prudent to bookend my discussion of Katie Murken‘s installation CONTINUA by providing some conceptual bookends. Newton and Cage seemed like obvious conceptual frames for an installation that simultaneously embrace the optics of color and the joys of a procedural chance-driven constraint. I should also start by saying this is one of the biggest exhibitions I’ve seen in Philadelphia by an artist who is not bankrolled by museum, nor part of a large collective. I’m not saying this is a large exhibit, although it squarely occupies a large gallery space, I am saying that CONTINUA represents a truly monumental undertaking, in which every aspect of bringing an idea to an audience has been considered. I mean it’s B-I-G, and you shouldn’t miss it.


Please continue reading, with many more pictures after the jump.
For those of you won’t or haven’t been able to see this exhibit, let me start by describing it. As you enter the gallery, you will find yourself in an octagonal room, with two openings, the doorway you entered and a doorway facing you. The other six walls each contain four vertical columns of color. The color is radiant, vibrant and irregularly organized. The columns draw to mind the visualization of DNA or some very complicated info-graphic. On closer inspection the columns seems to be made of felt of some kind of soft paper. The edges are not uniform of the column has slight edge variations that mirror the striations from one color to another. The combination of shifting colors and regularity of the columns makes me think these are some kind of core samples taken from a rainbow. The aesthetics is one that is as at once formal and physical. The effect is somatic exotic, it defers easy contextualization. These are columns of color made physical.

When you continue out through the exit facing you, there is a longer, narrower space. The walls in this room display about 20 medium-sized works on paper, floating unframed on the wall. Letterpress, digital printing and collage come together create images/information graphics that would make Sol lewitt proud. They operate as a kind of cypher to understanding the whole installation. Not that everything will become clear, but the scope and rigor of the project does begin to come into focus.


The columns, it turns out are made of Philadelphia phone books, a tremendous quantity of phone books. These books are each hand-dyed using a non-toxic dye (see studio shots near the end of this post), becoming bound, printed chunks of pure color. The charts reveal a mathematical/chance procedure that was used to determine color placement. Murken does a better job that I could describing the process:

With Continua, I became interested in designing a sort of game that would allow me to choose colors from the spectrum according to a set of probabilities, thus eliminating the need for compositional logic and allowing colors to present themselves in endlessly variable relationships of quantity and quality.  Within the game there are elements of chance and elements of probability. The size of each color section is chosen at random and can range in thickness from 95 pages to 950 pages. The colors themselves are chosen according to a set of probabilities that favor slow change or modulation, but allow for the occasional juxtaposition of more distant colors. This system results in unique and unpredictable compositions with in each column and throughout the space.

Each column is assigned a triad of colors, one complimentary pair and a third color equidistant between them. The triad is used to create a progression of 24 colors and this becomes the game board from which I select colors for the column. The colors are selected by rolling a pair of dice and moving a selector up and down the color spectrum. The moves are dictated by the game rules, which favor small movements, but allow for larger jumps too.

And this system was repeated endlessly until 24 ten foot columns were assembled in the outer gallery. Is it surprising that this project took over two years to bring to completion?


CONTINUA brings a lot of compelling components into play, starting with the phone books. There is something delightful about using these over-looked, quotidian ephemera as building blocks for the whole project. They are free, have rapidly diminishing utility, and contain a whole city. In fact, all of the materials used in this project are equally considered. Murken’s background as book artist is telegraphed by her very considered use of materials and rigorous hand-crafted perfectionism.




The results of all this chance work is a deeply phenomenological experience that makes one think about the color as a pure element of human experience.



Between the precise execution, and chance/mathy-type stuff it’s easy to overlook all the decisions that Murken did make.  To call attention to this, imagine a digital version this piece: a mac laptop on a pedestal running some kind of script choosing color relationships infinitely, and six projectors.. It’s the same conceptual conceit but with completely different stakes; it would lose all sense of physicality. The hand-dyed phone books, the custom built octagon room, the letterpress/digital print/collaged images.. all of these choices are strategically staking claim to our material culture. The monumental nature of this installation is tied to materials, the craft, and rigor. Like a well crafted book, you become so intimately drawn into the content you forget the physical structure of the delivery device.


It’s always rewarding to spend some time with a work that has layers of complexity; processes embodying ideas. CONTINUA marks Katie Murken as an serious artist who we would do well to watch in the future.



The following are process and studio shots provided by the artist.

Books drying

Dye ready

Murken continua 2

Dice roll



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Categories: Artists, Artwork, Exhibitions

5 Responses to “Katie Murken’s Continua”

  1. Truly an amazing show!

  2. WOW!!! That is really amazing and beautiful… just love all those colours! Wish I could see it in person!

  3. Marjorie G. says:

    This is a brilliant, in many ways, show. Try to see it in person!

  4. Bill says:

    these are sweet, so colorful and physical. Love it. I have to come and get my printeresting on from time to time.

  5. Sarah Smith says:

    I loved viewing your show from this site. So sorry I could not come in person to absorb the arrangement of colors as you played them! Absolutely wonderful, Katie. Hope to hear about your travels to Turkey. May you have a safe and inspirational visit. My love and prayers go with you! Sarah