Michael Craig-Martin occupies a unique place in the history of contemporary British art. As an artist, his hugely influential 1973 work An Oak Tree – a glass of water placed on a high shelf with a text explaining how it had been transformed by the artist – marked a turning point in the development of conceptual art, and the series of paintings that followed it – simple, minimal depictions of everyday objects produced over the past thirty years – have confirmed him as one of the most celebrated artists of his generation. At the same time, as a tutor at Goldsmith’s College in London, Craig-Martin was instrumental in fostering the radical, irreverent and often controversial work of the Young British Artists – a group that included Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread.
Although he was born in Dublin and grew up in America, Craig-Martin has lived and worked in Britain for most of his life. “I was amazed by the scale and sophistication of the British art world,” he tells Sekford, recalling his first impressions of London in 1966. “Now I cannot imagine living anywhere else.” This year, following a major retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, Craig-Martin’s 50 years of service to art in Britain was recognised with a knighthood from the Queen.
Here, Michael Craig-Martin discusses how his work as tutor and artist compliment one another, why he returned to painting and how the technology he depicts in his work can show us who we are.
How do you understand the relationship between working as a tutor and as an artist?
I set out in life with the dream of becoming an artist, it never occurred to me to want to be a teacher. I started teaching in art schools because in those days it was possible to make enough money teaching part time to leave half the week for your own work. I found it challenging but interesting and tried to develop ways to be useful to my students. I learned a lot.
During your time at Goldsmiths you taught an incredible generation of British artists – how did such a group come about?
Many factors came together in an unusual way. There were a large number of talented, hardworking, committed and ambitious students at Goldsmiths over a period of about 3-4 years. There was a chemistry between them, and they bonded as a mutually supportive group at college which continued to sustain them when they left. I cannot imagine anything happening like that again.
What is the significance of craft, of producing something by hand, in today’s digital society?
I think the skills required in making things have never been higher or more valued than today. We take for granted how well made everything around us is. Making something well, doing something well, is one of life’s greatest satisfactions, whatever the process, and because I am interested in the thingness of things, I like making them.
Why did you return to painting?
I started making line drawings of individual objects in 1978. In those early years I just used them to create wall drawings. By the mid 80’s I started to make the drawings as metal wall reliefs, sometimes with painted panels. Then in the early 90’s I concentrated and painted wall and room installations. The paintings came out of these installations. It was a long road to get to this point but for many years now painting has dominated what I do.
You describe your paintings as “flat sculptures”. Could you explain your thoughts behind this?
From being a student to beginning the wall drawings, my work was a form of sculpture, using either made or found objects. I am obviously not a painterly painter and I construct my paintings in a way that is similar to how one might construct a sculpture. I also seek a very visceral physical relationship between my work and the viewer that has more to do with sculpture than painting.
Your recent exhibition at the Serpentine, Transience, can be read as a history of the objects and technologies that have defined modern life over the past thirty years. Do you feel a certain responsibility in what you choose to document?
I always try to remain as neutral as I can about the objects I draw – I just record them. My work is not didactic and I have no message. I am neither a historian nor a social critic. I am not directly interested in these objects in terms of consumerism, good or bad design, or good or bad taste. But, simply by drawing the objects around me, I discovered that I had inadvertently recorded very important changes in the function and design of ordinary things.
What are the criteria that an object has to meet to be painted by you?
As far as possible the object needs to be universally recognisable. Years ago I understood this to mean a book or a chair but today the same is true of relatively new and sophisticated technologies like the iPhone or the laptop. The everyday objects we produce and use show us who we are.