Sir Michael Craig-Martin, R.A. is an Irish-born contemporary painter and a leading light in the first generation of British conceptual artists. A highly influential educator, curator and mentor in the art world, Craig-Martin is known as the godfather of the Young British Artists, the notorious group who counted Damien Hirst and Julian Opie amongst their ranks and whose radical views transformed the British art scene in the 1990s.
Craig-Martin came of age as an artist when ideas about representation were being pushed to their limits, and REAL is perhaps one of the most explicit manifestations of Craig-Martin’s conceptual art roots. Growing up a Roman Catholic, the notion of transubstantiation (whereby something is profoundly changed without changing its appearance) had deeply affected Craig-Martin. His youthful explorations culminated in Oak Tree (1973), a half-full glass of water placed upon a glass shelf - Craig-Martin’s radical answer to the fundamental question concerning the nature of art. Oak Tree made the simple point that the names we give to objects are simply linguistic attempts to make sense of physical entities. Whilst changing its name does not alter the physical nature of the object, it does change our fundamental perception of it - a point Craig-Martin underlined in later artworks such as HAIR (a painting of a chair) and ABLE (a painting of a table).
REAL, Craig-Martin’s rendition of a still life painting, directly questions what is ‘real’ about its subjects: discombobulated, transparent images of plastic jelly sandals, a mechanical metronome, a modern umbrella and a cello which gently float through the canvas foreground. Conversely, the letters of the word ‘REAL’ are rendered as solid objects in this surreal tableau. The Surrealist René Magritte considered the same paradox in The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe) (1929), and Craig-Martin acknowledges Magritte’s legacy by featuring his iconic pipe in several of his ‘still life’ assemblage paintings (see for example Common History: Vanitas).
"I was seduced by art’s promise of new and dangerous ideas, objects and meanings." —Michael Craig-Martin
In search of the 'style-less'
Since the 1970s Craig-Martin has developed a vocabulary of motifs virtually unchanged this day (see for example Full, 2000 and Eye of the Storm, 2002), and his startling, vibrantly-coloured paintings of mass-produced objects are a hymn to the mundane and overlooked in everyday life: ‘I thought the objects we value least because they were ubiquitous were actually the most extraordinary’ i. In this regard Craig-Martin is the heir to Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades elevated banal objects to the extraordinary - most notoriously Fountain (1917), a urinal signed ‘R. Mutt’, and Bottle Rack (1914) – a legacy Craig-Martin acknowledges by including representations of Duchamp’s works in his paintings (see for example Common History: Vanitas).
Craig-Martin’s joyful assemblages of found objects piled atop each other are commonly interpreted as influenced by the still life genre, but Craig-Martin approaches them from the perspective of a sculptor working in 2D: 'I'm essentially a constructor, a putter-togetherer of things. I see my paintings as being informed by my years of making sculpture. I think of my paintings as flat sculptures'.ii Craig-Martin’s fascination with ordinary objects and attempt to capture them in 2D precipitated his pursuit of the ‘style-less’.iii ‘Drawing’ with crepe tape and applying up to 40 coats of paint using four-inch rollers to conceal any evidence of the artist’s hand in his drawings, Craig-Martin’s flat, shockingly vivid colour scheme is inspired by Josef Albers, the abstract painter and colour theorist who had developed graphic arts program at Yale, Craig-Martin’s alma mater (see for example Albers’s Homage to the Square: Red Brass, 1961). ‘Everything I know about colour comes from that course’ explained Craig-Martin.iv
Craig-Martin’s ideas profoundly shaped the YBAs, who went on to dominate the art world and influence British cultural life for generations to come. Represented by Gagosian, Craig-Martin has been honoured with solo retrospectives including at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (1989) and the Serpentine Gallery, London (2015). His work is represented in distinguished public collections worldwide, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. The artist lives and works in London, and in 2016 he was knighted for services to art.
i Michael Craig-Martin, quoted in Stuart Jeffries, ‘Michael Craig-Martin: Up close and impersonal’, The Guardian, 4 May 2011, online.
ii Dale Berning, ‘Artist Michael Craig-Martin reveals the system behind his work’, The Guardian, 20 September 2009, online.
iii Michael Craig-Martin, quoted in Stuart Jeffries, ‘Michael Craig-Martin: Up close and impersonal’, The Guardian, 4 May 2011, online.
iv Michael Craig-Martin, quoted in Stuart Jeffries, ‘Michael Craig-Martin: Up close and impersonal’, The Guardian, 4 May 2011, online.