Making use of art historical sources, Michael Craig-Martin creates images from everyday objects, suffusing them with high-pitch tone and colour before presenting them in a crisp and impersonal manner to the viewer.
Throughout his career Craig-Martin has explored the aesthetic and linguistic character of everyday, designer and iconic ‘art-historical’ objects which he has realised through a variety of media including paintings, sculpture, prints and, most recently, computer animations.
About Michael Craig-Martin
Michael Craig-Martin was born in Dublin in 1941
The Dublin reared Craig-Martin was given a religious education, for eight years in a Roman Catholic school run by nuns, and later at the English Benedictine Priory School (now St. Anselm’s Abbey School), where pupils were encouraged to look at religious imagery in illuminated glass panels and stained-glass windows.
He gained an interest in art through one of the priests, who was an artist, and was also strongly impressed by a display in the Phillips Collection of work by Mark Rothko.
Craig-Martin studied in the Lycée Français in Bogotá, Colombia, where his father had employment for a while.
Drawing classes in the Lycée by an artist, Antonio Roda, gave him a wider perspective on art.
His parents had no inclinations towards art, although they did have on display in their home Picasso’s Greedy Child.
Back in Washington, he attended drawing classes given there by artists, then in 1959 attended Fordham University in New York for English Literature and History, while also starting to paint.
In mid-1961 Craig-Martin studied art at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, and in the autumn began a painting course at Yale university, where the teaching was strongly influenced by the multi-disciplinary experimentation and minimalist theories on colour and form of Josef Albers, a former head of department.
Craig-Martin later said, “Everything I know about colour comes from that course”.
Tutors on the course included artists, Alex Katz and Al Held.
He returned to Europe in the mid-1960s and was a key figure in the first generation of British conceptual artists.
He came to Britain on completion of his studies in 1966, and has lived and worked there ever since.
His first solo exhibition was at the Rowan Gallery, London in 1969.
He participated in the definitive exhibition of British conceptual art, “The New Art” at the Hayward Gallery in 1972.
Throughout his career, through work in many different media, he has explored the expressive potential of commonplace objects and images.
From his early box-like constructions of the late 60’s he moved increasingly to the use of ordinary household objects, playing against the logic of his sources.
In 1974, he exhibited his iconic piece An Oak Tree, consisting of a glass of water standing on a shelf high on the gallery wall. In the accompanying text, he asked himself questions to assert that, despite appearances, he had changed the glass of water into an oak tree.
In the late 70’s he began to make line drawings of ordinary objects, creating over the years an ever-expanding vocabulary of images which form the foundation of his work to this day.
Craig-Martin continued working in various mediums, always maintaining an elegant restraint and conceptual clarity.
During the 1990s the focus of his work shifted decisively to painting, with the same range of boldly outlined motifs and luridly vivid colour schemes in unexpected combinations applied both to works on canvas, and to increasingly complex installations of wall paintings.
As a tutor at Goldsmith’s College from 1974-1988 and 1994-2000, he had a significant influence on two generations of young British artists.
Craig-Martin is well known to have been an influential teacher at the Goldsmiths College London, and is considered a key figure in the emergence of the young British artists in the early 90′s.
Amongst his former students are Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Liam Gillick, Sarah Lucas, Julian Opie, and Fiona Rae
Craig-Martin’s work is in many public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Tate Gallery, London, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.
He has had solo exhibitions at institutions across the world including Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2006) and most recently Krefeld Museum, Germany (2013).
A retrospective of his work was presented at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (1989) and a second at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2006–07).
Permanent large-scale installations can be seen at the DLR Station Woolwich Arsenal, the European Investment Bank, Luxembourg, and the Laban Dance Centre, Greenwich, a collaboration with architects Herzog and De Meuron.
He was an Artist Trustee of Tate from 1989-99, received a CBE in 2001, and was elected to the Royal Academy in 2006. The artist lives and works in London.
He is now the Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at Goldsmiths.
He has had retrospectives at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (2006) and Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2006), National Art Centre, Tokyo (2007) and has permanent large-scale installations at Regent’s Place and The Laban Center, both in London.
In 2006 he was appointed a Royal Academician.
His work is held in numerous museum collections including the Tate Gallery, London, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and MoMA, New York
The Alan Cristea Gallery is the sole worldwide representative for his limited edition prints and animations.
Individual prints £500 – £4,000
Lightboxes from £3,500
Drawings £3,000 – £9,000
Books and portfolios £1,500 – £25,000
Over the past fifteen years he has done exhibitions and site specific installations in numerous museums and public galleries including Kunsthaus Bregenz, the Centre Pompidou, MoMA, the Kunstvereins in Hannover, Dusseldorf, and Stuttgart, IVAM in Valencia, the Magasin in Grenoble, the Arp Museum in Rolandseck, and the National Art Center Tokyo.
He represented Britain in the 23rd Sao Paulo Biennal.
A retrospective of his work was presented at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London 1989 and at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in 2006.
He was an Artist Trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1989-99, received a CBE in 2001, and was elected to the Royal Academy in 2006.
A comprehensive and fully illustrated book on his work, written by the critic Richard Cork, was published by Thames and Hudson in 2006.
He is represented by the Gagosian Gallery
About an Oak Tree
An Oak Tree is a conceptual work of art created by Michael Craig-Martin in 1973.
The piece, described as being an oak tree, is installed in two units – a pristine installation of a glass of water on a glass shelf on metal brackets 253 centimetres above the ground, and a text mounted on the wall. When first exhibited, the text was given as a handout.
The text takes the form of a Q&A about the artwork, in which Craig-Martin describes changing “a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water,” and explains that “the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.”
Craig-Martin considered “the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say”.
The work makes the same claim as the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the Real Presence.
The original is in the National Gallery of Australia and an artist’s copy is on loan to the Tate gallery
Interview with Michael Craig-MArtin
By Liz Jobey
For the UK Guardian
On a dank morning in north London, Michael Craig-Martin is a sudden dash of colour against the grey as he springs out of his studio to meet me.
The V-necked sweater in a delectable shade of lavender-bluish-pink speaks of personal self-confidence (at 72 he retains a thatch of well-cut white hair and a distinct physical magnetism) as well as the expertise with which he chooses the grounds of his paintings: acid greens and brilliant yellows, zingy pinks and cobalt blues.
The use of strong colour, applied evenly with a roller in a super-flat field across the entire surface of the canvas, is as distinctive as the meticulous line-drawn objects that sit within them.
Over the years, these objects, from the most ordinary – a fork, a hammer, a ladder, a coat-hanger – to modern design classics such as a Marcel Breuer chair or an Anglepoise lamp, have taken on the role of modern hieroglyphs, signifiers, open to multiple readings from the factual to the philosophical, all interpretations welcome.
“I do think of the kind of art that I do as having a philosophical basis,” he says, “but I have an enormous following amongst kids!”
The objects are mute, manufactured, hard to read: sometimes they sit alone in the centre of the canvas, with the importance of an icon or the banality of a pack shot; sometimes they are paired, in dialogue with one another; sometimes they are scaled up to an enormous size, so that a safety-pin becomes an object of menace; sometimes he composes a great jumble of objects, their outlines overlapping, that suggests, simultaneously, emotional chaos and a family store cupboard that has exploded.
His sculptures also depict objects – often the same objects, three-dimensional versions of the line drawings, in brightly painted metal, or in neon and scaled up to greater than life-size.
A selection of recent sculptures has just been installed outdoors at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire for an exhibition that opens later this month, promising visitors the chance to view the 17th-century house and its grounds through the frame of, for example, a pink stiletto-heeled shoe. Meanwhile in London he will be exhibiting screen prints at the Alan Cristea Gallery, alongside a show of single works by artist-printmakers he admires – among them Warhol and Lichtenstein, Picasso, Braque and Matisse.
Very rarely do Craig-Martin’s works include a human figure, even in outline. I ask him why. “Every single thing that I do implies a human presence,” he says. “[The objects] always imply usage.
It’s usage that motivates us; that’s what makes us change. So I see my work as deeply imbued with a human presence, but the human presence is you. I’m making a thing in which your completion of it is your understanding of what the thing is . . . I give you this little trigger and you bring this unbelievable wealth of knowledge and also personal feeling [to it].”
His images are deliberately generic. “When I started to make the drawings of objects, one of my main intentions was to be as non-hierarchical as possible. I wanted them to be very factual, very ordinary and styleless. I was trying to make a kind of styleless drawing and then, ironically, it has become my style.
“Because what I’ve created through the drawings – which I didn’t understand at the beginning – is a language. And the language is mine, and I can address anything I want so long as I pull it into my language. So I’ll take Duchamp, I’ll take Breuer, I’ll take works of great, high design and works of no design at all. I’m not trying to dictate these things. I am trying to touch as many areas of resonance as I can.”
He used to draw everything freehand. Now he often uses photographs. “It’s so much easier to make images,” he says. “In the old days I actually had to have the object. I had to buy it in order to draw it. Now I do all the original drawings on the computer. I draw with a mouse, so there is no paper original any more. I’ve been doing it for 15 years or more. It’s second nature to me.”
He has lived, he says, through a time when the modernist design ethic of “form and function” has been thoroughly undermined by technology. In the 1970s, “you could tell what a thing did by what it looked like. What happens from the ’80s and certainly the ’90s on is that you’re much more aware of something being designed rather than engineered. The most obvious example is the telephone, which once looked like a telephone: you knew where to speak, and where to hear, and you held it in your hand. Now we have the mobile phone, and you can’t find where to speak and where to listen. None of us have any idea where the sound is coming from or where it’s going.”
It is 40 years since he exhibited one of his most famous works, “An Oak Tree”, in London. It consisted of a tumbler of water standing on a glass shelf high up on the gallery wall. Next to it was a printed sheet, with a Q&A, in which the artist is interrogated about the meaning of the work:
“Q. Could you describe this work?
“A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree . . . ”
The spirit of Duchamp, the belief that the idea is as important as the form, has run through Craig-Martin’s work ever since he arrived here from the US in the mid-1960s, after graduating from Yale. (Though born in Dublin, he grew up in the US.)
But his relationship with conceptualism is a complicated one. According to Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, who has long followed Craig-Martin’s work, his earlier pieces were “more perceptual than conceptual”: “It was the difference between seeing and knowing, always played out in a very visceral, physical way. ‘An Oak Tree’ was also about the difference between seeing and knowing, but developed in more conceptual terms.
“A number of hardline conceptual artists thought that the work was too illustrational and that Michael was jumping on a bandwagon,” Serota adds. “There was a degree of scepticism [among them] about Michael as an artist. It was probably only really in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when he started the wall drawings, that he established a place both here and internationally.”
By his own admission, Craig-Martin came late to drawing, and even later to colour. “I didn’t really get into colour until the ’90s,” he says. “I was frightened of colour in the way that many artists were. Early conceptualism is really very puritanical. There were certain forbidden things in the world my art developed from: one was picture-making, which I knew was very dangerous territory to become involved in. And the other one was colour. Both of these are things that people from a conceptual point of view find decadent and, I suppose, decorative, and that implies a certain shallowness.”
Having transgressed on both counts left him free to develop his own voice.
There was a time during the 1990s when he was probably better known as a teacher than an artist, after a group of students he had tutored at Goldsmith’s became Young British Artists – Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume among them. It’s easy to see how he might have been an attractive influence – transatlantic, non-judgmental, comfortable with the kind of conceptual thinking that gave them space. “He’s a permissioneer,” says the artist Richard Wentworth, who taught at Goldsmiths at the same time.
He gave up regular teaching in 2000 (he is emeritus professor of fine art at Goldsmiths) and since then has been working on international commissions, some of which have involved installations that take over entire interiors, as well as collaborations with architects, such as the Tate Modern architects Herzog and De Meuron, whom he worked with on the Laban Dance Centre building in Deptford, south London, in 2003.
Before I leave, he gives me a tour of the studio. The walls are lined with new canvases in different stages of completion; a couple of assistants are working away. “I’m a person who likes to get up in the morning and come to the studio and I want to work every day,” he says. “I’m very happy to be here. I like having something to do. And painting is really wonderful as a daily vehicle of exploration.”
As to meaning, he resists being drawn. “People who have the idea that you come closer to the meaning of the object by knowing the intention of the artist are in my view going down the wrong street entirely,” he says. “What they need to do is forget about that and look at what they’ve got. Look at what the artist is giving them. And the thing that is coming to them is the thing the artist meant.”
‘Objects of Our Time’ and ‘Master Prints’
Alan Cristea Gallery, London,
March 28-May 2,
The new exhibition includes a series of 12 screenprints entitled ‘Objects of our Time’, alongside other recent editions in several different media – all of which focus on everyday items and objects from the worlds of art and design.
‘Wish List’, also curated by Craig-Martin, brings together iconic 20th and 21st century prints by major modern and contemporary artists both from his personal collection
Michael Craig-Martin at Chatsworth
March 16-June 29, 2014
The artist admitted it had become a much bigger project than he anticipated but one he was proud of.
“It touches on a lot of things I do, I make paintings and sculptures, I do installations, and I have curated drawings. It has allowed me to play with different aspects of the repertoire of things I do in an extraordinary place.”
Comprising twelve large-scale sculptures, six of which will be unveiled for the first time in the historic gardens and landscape at Chatsworth.
“I thought that would be nice, I’ll just have a few sculptures. In the end what’s happened is it’s become one of the most important projects of my career.”
Each work is an immense line drawing in space fabricated in steel and painted in a vibrant hue.
Commonplace objects – an umbrella, a high heel shoe, a wheelbarrow – are dramatically enlarged and positioned to actively engage with their landscape setting.
To accompany the exhibition, Michael Craig-Martin has delved into Chatsworth’s spectacular collection and curated a classical sculpture tour of the house.
In addition the artist has also personally selected a group of portraits from the Devonshire Collection of old master drawings, regarded as one of the finest collections in the world.
Inside the house, Michael Craig-Martin brings his own approach to highlighting sculpture from the Devonshire Collection, and selects visually arresting portraits for the Old Master Drawings Cabinet, including drawings by Hans Holbein, Annibale Carracci and Ghirlandaio
In the small drawings room, 12 Old Master head portraits are on display including one of a man who looks like an alarmed Stephen Frears but is in fact Leo X.
Craig-Martin said that as he looked through the collection, regarded as one of the finest in the world, he kept being struck by the “stunning” portraits.
When he found out there were only 12 head portraits in a collection that runs in to the thousands he realised he had found his “show”
And in the house he has clad all of the traditional marble and mosaic sculpture plinths in magenta.
The changes are most noticeable in the house’s sculpture gallery where 20 stunning 19th century sculptures, including Sleeping Endymion by Canova, now have bright magenta bases.
“You can see how it clarifies the sculptures,” Craig-Martin said. “You can see them so much more easily than normal.”
Craig-Martin, a former teacher at Goldsmith’s, in London, who is often labelled as their godfather of the YBAs, has also been to work on a sculpture in the house by one of his former pupils, Damien Hirst.
The work Exquisite Pain, which now also has a magenta plinth.