(This is an interview I had with artist Michael Craig-Martin. It was originally posted on the Myartspace Blog on August 16th, 2007.)
Born in Dublin in 1941, Michael Craig-Martin studied at Yale University School of Art and Architecture in the early 1960s, but has spent most of his working life in Great Britain. Since that time he has shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions both in Britain and internationally, including the definitive exhibition of British conceptual art, The New Art, at the Hayward Gallery (1972).
The impact Michael has had on the world of art is obvious. From 1974 to 1988, Michael instructed art at Goldsmiths College, London. During that time Michael instructed- Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Damien Hirst, Mat Collishaw, Fiona Rae, Liam Gillick, Simon Patterson, Richard Patterson, Michael Landy, Abigail Lane, Angus Fairhurst, Angela Bullock, and Ian Davenport. Michael returned to Goldsmiths College in 1993 as Millard Professor of Fine Art.
Michael Craig-Martin has a long and impressive list of accomplishments in the world of art: He has served as a Trustee at the Tate Gallery, has done installations for the Projects exhibition series at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1991) and the Centre Pompidou in Paris (1994), and has created major wallpainting installations at the Kunstverein Hannover (1998) and at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart (1999). Michael represented Great Britain at the XXIV Bienal de São Paulo (Brazil) in 1998 due to his dedication and contributions to the artworld.
Brian Sherwin: Michael, when did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you recall any memories or events from your youth that set you on that path?
Michael Craig-Martin: I decided I wanted to be an artist very young - I was about 12 when I first saw reproductions of 'modern' art. For some reason I realized that art would always be elusive and ungraspable and I knew that that was for me. I met a 'real' artist, the Spanish artist Antonio Roda, when I was 14 and started drawing classes with him. I was very determined but full of self-doubt.
BS: Michael, you studied art at Yale University School of Art and Architecture.Who were your mentors at that time? Also, can you recall any of your early influences?
MCM: My most helpful teachers were Al Held, Alex Katz, Jack Tworkov, and Neil Welliver. Amongst my fellow students were Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Jon Borofsky, Jennifer Bartlett, Victor Burgin. I think one's fellow students are at least, if not more important than one's teachers.
BS: You have spent most of your working life in Great Britain. Why did you decide to move from the States to Great Britain? Were you bored of the US scene? Or did you just need a change?
MCM: A mix of reasons. My parents lived in London until I was 3 and I was always fascinated by that other life I almost had. It was the swinging 60's, and I was the same age as the Beatles. I didn't realize it was perhaps the greatest period of American art. The disastrous Vietnam war was revealing the worst aspects of America, just as the even more disastrous Iraq war is now. I was offered a teaching job in England, we had a baby, and I needed the money. I meant to stay a year or two. That was 41 years ago.
BS: Michael, you exhibited art at the definitive exhibition of British conceptual art, The New Art, at the Hayward Gallery in 1972. Can you recall that period of time? Were you concerned that people would not 'get it', so to speak?
MCM: It was a period of real austerity in Britain - I was poorer than anyone I'd ever met. But it was a great time to be a young artist - I remember it as a period of exceptional creative freedom and adventure, when one was regularly presented with works of art unlike anything one had ever seen before. What tiny audience there was was highly committed and informed.
Most people were convinced that the art we made was either a con or an intellectual game from which they were excluded. We could never have imagined there would ever be the large popular audience for art there is today.
BS: In the early 1970s you exhibited the seminal piece An Oak Tree (Image Above-now in the Tate collection). The work consists of a glass of water standing on a shelf attached to the gallery wall next to which is a text using a semiotic argument to explain why it is in fact an oak tree. I've read that you had an odd experience with this piece in that it was once barred by US Customs officials from entering the country as 'vegetation'. You were forced to explain it was really a glass of water. Can you recall how you felt about that situation? Were you upset or did you find the it amusing? Also, have you had other mishaps with your work?
MCM: Actually the work shown in the Tate is my artist's copy, as the original work was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in 1977. And the customs incident did happen, but going into Australia not the US. It was of course a wonderfully funny incident, particularly because it extended into 'real life' the discussion about belief and doubt, and fact and fiction I was addressing in the work.
An Oak Tree has had a great life as an artwork. It is nearly always on view somewhere, and has been shown all over the world - the text has been translated into at least 20 languages. The only place its has never been shown is in the US.
BS: Michael, As a senior tutor at Goldsmiths' College, you were a significant influence on the emerging YBA generation, including Damien Hirst. You were also helpful in promoting the Freeze show to established artworld figures. Looking back on how things have turned out... is there anything you would like to say about Damien Hirst or the others? I will assume that you are very proud of them all.
MCM: I had always tried to help my students in any way I could, particularly in those first years after art school. I knew from personal experience how difficult it was - I never had things come easy. I did the same with Damien and Freeze. I encouraged people to go and see the work. I would never have done this if I hadn't believed the show was of exceptional interest - why waste people's time? It amuses me that so many people think what happened was calculated and cleverly manipulated whereas in fact it was a combination of youthful bravado, innocence, fortunate timing, good luck, and, of course, good work. It caught people's imagination.
People have forgotten how little opportunity for young artists there was in England at the time. They were simply trying to survive - and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. It is true that I am proud of them, and couldn't be happier they've enjoyed such great success.
BS: You taught at Goldsmiths College from 1974 to 1988- you returned in 1993 as Millard Professor of Fine Art. Would you like to share some of your experiences as an instructor at Goldsmiths?
MCM: Goldsmiths was a particularly great school throughout the 70's and 80's, when few people knew it existed. The radical nature of the department was the creation of Jon Thompson, who hired me and many other young artists in those early years. The approach and values of the school suited me perfectly, and I extended and enhanced them. I devoted a great deal of thought and energy to Goldsmiths.
It was completely focused on helping as wide a range of students as possible to discover and develop their individual creative interests and abilities, whatever form they might take, and its methods were madly daring but they worked. It obviously helped a great many of its students develop the self-knowledge and self-confidence needed to sustain themselves as artists.
BS: Michael, how did you find balance between being an instructor and creating your personal work? I've spoken with many college/university instructors who say that it can be very difficult at times. Would you say that teaching at Goldsmiths- being surrounded by creative minds- enhanced your art?
MCM: It was very difficult. For many years I taught 3 days a week, did my own work 3 days a week, and everything else in life on the remaining day. I found teaching interesting and enjoyed it, and I learned a lot from and through my students. But I never thought of myself as a teacher or sought to make a career in education. I was never the head of department at Goldsmiths and refused the offer at various other art schools.
As I started to make some money in the 80's I taught less and less, and when I didn't need the income I stopped completely. After the years of effort that had involved, it drives me crazy when people talk to me today as though I used to teach and now I make my work. If I hadn't made work all those years, you wouldn't be talking to me today.
I do think I paid a price as an artist, and I am trying to make up for it now - I work six days a week in the studio, and I've never been happier.
BS: Michael, in your later works you used a stylized drawing technique. You often depict everyday household objects and sometimes incorporate art references, such as objects known from their use in Dada artworks. Aside from Dada, have there been any other early art movements that have influenced your work?
MCM: In the late 70's I started to make drawings of the ordinary objects I had been using in my work. Initially I wanted them to be ready-made drawings of the kind of common objects I had always used in my work. I was surprised to discover I couldn't find the simple, neutral drawings I had assumed existed, so I started to make them myself. I deliberately avoided any personal or expressive character in them (un-inflected line, drawing with tape, etc) - I wanted them to be as impersonal and 'styleless' as possible. Ironically, over the years the character of my drawings has gradually come to be seen as my 'style'.
I am always adding to the set of drawings I use. At one point I added the ordinary objects that other artists had used in their work (thus rendering them forever as not ordinary): Duchamp's urinal, Magritte's pipe, John's tin of paint brushes, Man Ray's iron. I have also explored the work of various other artists I admire, including Velasquez, Piero, Seurat, Lewiit, Judd, and Andre.
BS: Michael, you have said the following about your art, "My installations question the nature of picture making. Instead of looking at a painting, it feels like you are stepping inside it. All the images are sucked in onto the canvas and then exhaled on the wall opposite." Can you go further into detail about your personal philosophy about art?
MCM: I came to painting through sculpture, to images through objects. I think that images sit in the middle, somewhere between objects and words. I treat pictures of objects as though they were objects themselves, but also as if they were as malleable as words. An image can picture one thing while representing another. I try to make images that have the immediate presence we take for granted in objects - a chair, a shoe, a book, a Judd – and compose them like sentences.
The complexity of the language of images is disguised by the ease and rapidity with which we read them. I've tried to make work that is as transparent and simple as possible. No matter how much I strip away the result is always more complex to me than I expect.
BS: Michael, there has been a lot of talk about the art market lately. Many people are afraid that the bubble will eventually burst, so to speak. There is concern that younger artists might be thrown into obscurity if this occurs. Do you have any concerns about the art market at this time? Do you think it unwise for a young artist charge high prices for his or her art straight out of college? Also, do you have any other concerns about the artworld at this time?
MCM: There is a complete difference between art and the art market. Prices are high now for the simple reason that there are people are willing to pay them. The market dominates the art world today because at the moment collectors call the shots. Like everything else that won't last forever.
I am personally happy for artists to make as much money as they can while they can to carry them through the times when they can't. Whatever happens to the art world, art will go on regardless. As for obscurity, it looms just over the horizon beckoning us all. Why worry.
BS: Michael, your art has many advocates- Damien Hirst, Julian Opie, Patrick Caulfield, and Charles Saatchi, just to name a few. However, there are some who oppose it- the Art critic David Lee and the founders of the Stuckists art movement- Charles Thomson and Billy Childish. Do you take their criticism with a grain of salt, so to speak? Why do you think certain individuals oppose conceptual art instead of accepting it as it is? Would you agree that all forms of art should be embraced for what they are... instead of having the validity of the work questioned? Or is it important for people to question... to doubt?
MCM: I feel sorry for those who build their lives on feeling bitter about other people. They often have a misunderstanding about what it means to ‘understand’ a work of art and therefore feel threatened by what they don't ‘understand’. ‘Understanding’ art is like having a sense of humour - if you don't have one, no amount of explanation is going to make you laugh.
The art world, of all worlds, has room for everyone.
So much of conservative criticism is based on confusion and misunderstanding. The term 'conceptual' is used to mean a thousand different things. I have never understood, for instance, why some people see contemporary art as divided between 'painting' and 'conceptual art', as though this represented a genuine division. Surely some painting is conceptual in character, some not. Just as some video is conceptual, some not. It is the nature of the work, not the medium used that indicates significant differences in art.
Most of my work over the past 15 years has been painting - though most of my critics never refer to this work , I assume because if they did, they would have to say they were the 'wrong kind of paintings', or not 'real' paintings at all. The psuedo-question 'is it art?', so loved by some people, has become redundant. In the land of Tate Modern, always filled with art and people, the issue is dead.
Most angry critics who deal in generalizations show hopeless judgement in distinguishing between good and poor individual works. Just as Prince Charles managed to single out for condemnation only those few modern buildings in London of true quality and thoughtfulness, while never mentioning the hundreds of examples of architectural mediocrity around them, art doesn't need self-appointed protectors.
BS: Some of your more recent work has involved the utilization of computers (sample above). Did you find it difficult to make the transition from using physical materials? Also, what are you working on at this time?
MCM: I have been using the computer as a work aid since the mid-90's. It is extraordinarily well suited to how I think and work and has transformed my practice. Nearly everything I have done in the past 15 years would have been impossible without it. I use the computer for drawing, composing and colour planning everything, from postage stamps to paintings to architectural-scale installations.
I made a couple of screensavers some years ago. Inevitably they gave me ideas for works made exclusively for computers. I've done 5 now, using complex randomization programs that leave detailed decision-making to the computer. I am now working on computer portraits.
BS: Speaking of technology, through the use of the internet it would seem that any artist- with reasonable skill- has the chance to make an impact. It is obvious that the internet is changing the world of art. Major online art competitions are becoming commonplace- it would seem that now is the perfect time to be an artist. Do you agree? Or do you think the artworld should be concerned about this? Could there be pitfalls?
MCM: A consequence of the democratization of art since the 1960's has been that anyone who chooses can be an artist. You don't need permission, a college certificate, or particular skills.
The internet has extended the possibility of making art to more people, and particularly of enabling it to be seen by others. I am sure the internet is having a profound impact on art, particularly those who have grown up with it, but making good art will remain as difficult (and as easy) as it ever was. Having a lasting impact may become more not less difficult.
BS: Michael, do you have any advice or suggestions for artists who are just starting out?
BS: Do you have any upcoming exhibitions of your work? Where can our readers view your art?
MCM: I will have an exhibition of new paintings and computer works at the Gagosian Gallery in Britannia Street in London in November 2007. And new prints and editions at Alan Cristea Gallery London in April 2008. I will be doing big site-specific installations at several museums in Australia including the Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney in the spring 2008. I am doing a permanent installation on the exterior of four public housing buildings in Nice, an 80 meter wall made of corian for an EU building in Luxembourg, and a mosaic installation for a new station of the Docklands Light Railway in south London. I've never been so busy.
I have a website: http://www.michaelcraig-martin.com/
There are also two good current publications:
Signs of Life, published by Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2006, with texts by Eckhard Schneider, Liam Gillick, and Edgar Schmitz
Michael Craig-Martin 1964-2006, text by Richard Cork, published by Thames and Hudson in conjunction with the Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2006
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the artworld?
MCM: I think I have said more than enough.
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Michael Craig-Martin. You can learn more about Michael and his art by visiting his website: www.michaelcraig-martin.com
Take care, Stay true,