It is hard to understand the incongruities between a successful artist and the work of mere mortals like the rest of us. I want to put into words how can a simple drawing of an object can be turned into a world-class sculptural form. Michael Craig-Martin, the once significant tutor of the YBAs at Goldsmith between 1974-1998, is now showing his latest sculpture at the Gagosian Gallery on Britannia Street in London. Is it the snap at the moment of impact when seeing his work, where he is best in the game? Is it the skill of his placement that no one else comes close to? Or is it the degree of Craig-Martin’s unparalleled expertise? I realise all this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of seeing the distinguished simplicity of Craig-Martin’s artwork. I went along to his current show to see first hand, the beauty and genius of Michael Craig-Martin’s game.
I walk into the exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, on Britannia Street, I am met with a void-like atmosphere in the exhibition space. I am confronted with brightly coloured magenta frame in the shape of headphones, a cobalt blue safety pin and an emerald green fountain pen. They stand eight-foot-tall immediately in front of me in the empty space. The white walls and grey concrete floor stand in contrast, drawing my attention to the simplicity and colour that comes from the metal-framed sculptures.
When the shapes first come into sight, there is a snap at the moment of impact, like observing a professional tennis player’s powerful backhand. All I am witnessing is the finished point in time that is gratifying and noteworthy. However, my first thought is how the finished result looks so straightforward. As I walk around, I notice how the apparent three-dimensional work is really two-dimensional from the side.
I imagine not thinking about the countless paintings and wall mural I have seen of Craig-Martin’s work. It must be hard to understand how much effort it has taken to produce this work for a new viewer of Craig-Martin’s work. There is not much for a viewer to go on. The highly refined three-dimensional objects sit there like a simple act.
It feels inconceivable to figure out how top performers reaches these dizzy heights of visual power from only witnessing the finished result. I think of a non-sports person watching the raw and powerful backhand of professional tennis winning at match point.
The player sprints to the corner with his weight moving towards the edge of the line. The participant throws a forehand with a topspin screaming down the line past the competitor. It is hard to imagine all the thousands of practices it has taken to reach this eminence moment. As the viewer stands there in shock. They look to find something to grab hold to understand the players elegant and effortless form. Asking themselves “did I really see what I just witnessed? How did they do it, it looked so easy?”
The white cube without any tendency towards anything leaves space for the viewer to really considering these simple-looking sculptures. Witness the work the viewer asks themselves the same question, what have I missed and how did the artist get to here?
Craig-Martin enables the viewers to carry out a time transportation effect to recollect the viewer knowledge and experience of the object in a profound and meaningful way. What can I perceive beyond the physical and tangible object? What does my intuition tell me?
The choice of colour stands out. The bright contrasting colours are like a centre punch in the gallery. In essence, Craig-Martin sculpture starts with a simple kind of reductiveness. He began by choosing an essential thing; an informed selection of all the art forms. The first step is making a pencil drawing; an original form of art-making.
From studying the work it possible to realise no one else would have taken the solitary steps. No one else would come close to this outcome. The skill of placement takes an original object and refines it. Lifting its significance and drawing attention to it.
When Craig-Martin was young, he had a keen interest in what things looked like. He loved great American 50s cars, and even today, he is still able to use his visual memory to identify the make and model of every car from this period. Through drawing, Craig-Martin has followed his natural engagement with things.
Drawing enables Craig-Martin the opportunity to follow his nose in an open and unparalleled way. Rather than choosing cars, he deliberately chose objects we take for granted. A careful selection between all the commonplace items. Each item has its own significance in its own unique way.
Craig-Martin recognised the precise snap in his distinct drawings. Craig-Martin’s drawings have a peculiar look. The finished image looks like a technical drawing taken from an instruction manual. It imparts just enough knowledge on the viewer, so they recognise the object depicted.
The simple appearance at first glance appears as if the original drawing that inspired the sculpture could have been drawn by anyone. However, Craig-Martin’s picture of an everyday object is refined and distinct due to the sharp and precise line without shading, tone or predilection. No matter who set out with the same task, Craig-Martin’s approach of reducing the object without personal inflection is one of a kind. It leads to an outcome to be free from style and be remarkable in their own way. Successively creating Craig-Martin’s own visual language and system of communication.
The unparalleled skill comes partly from the expertise of Craig-Martin’s drawing but more so from the carefully selecting of what not to draw. Chuck Close, the American painter, known for his photorealistic process paintings talks about developing a practice based on the process;
“We often don’t know what we want to do, but we sure as hell know what we don’t want to do. So the choice not to do something is often more important than the choice to do something.”
The persistence of completing the task again and again and knowing what you don’t want to do draws awareness to what appears to be mundane, functional items. The visual idea is then repeated over the years as paintings, murals and sculpture. Through this repetition of presentation, novelty turns into aesthetic importance for the viewer.
Craig-Martin picked up a pencil and started drawing what he was interested in. He had found something. He didn’t know it was a good idea when he started, it was just an idea. Through a long journey, Craig-Martin’s has located what was indeed his.
At its heart, it is a simple drawing. Craig-Martin took a modest idea and elevated it. Through a conscious selection of things between the obvious stuff, the everyday item that we take for granted has been given a new significance. Every reiteration confirmed the unique style into a recognisable calling card and signature style. The distinct visual language is now comparable to his initial interest in the 1950s American cars. It is a clear personal vision that holds the viewers’ attention and tells the viewer a truth…
“There is no shoe, yet everybody sees a shoe. It doesn’t look anything like a shoe not even slightly. It has no relationship to a shoe whatsoever except it looks like a shoe. There is another object there, it’s not in one’s imagination. There is an object that is not a shoe, being seen to be a shoe. It is really extraordinary human ability and phenomenon.” Michael Craig-Martin explains, “There reason why dogs don’t watch television, it’s because they can’t see and read pictures. We have this extraordinary capacity to read pictures.”
There is a common phrase in art, ‘Painting comes out of painting.’ In this case, sculpture and painting come out of drawing. Craig-Martin original task wasn’t like a visionary architect, seeing a finish conceptual artwork in his mind from the start. It is more like a gardener, growing and pruning a garden and seeing which way the plants develop while nurturing them.
The beauty and genius of Michael Craig-Martin game is the commitment to baby steps without being able to see where they will lead. Following intuition and trusting inner belief that it will work its way out in the end. Stepping on the court as a novice and only seeing the winning backhand, it is impossible to understand of practices that have lead to this result.
Michael Craig-Martin was born in Dublin in 1941 but spent most of his childhood in Washington D. C. He studied Fine Art at Yale School of Art and Architecture. He has lived and worked in Britain since 1966.