LectureHop: A Question of Style
Written by Bwog Staff
Michael Craig-Martin‘s work is immediately recognizable. His larger-than-life line drawings of everyday objects are usually complimented with garishly bright colors and have adorned an entire floor at MoMA, housing projects in Nice, and international banks. And, like other artists of his time, his work has been prone to criticism. He has been criticized of “Pop Art” on the more generous side of the spectrum and “kitsch” at the opposite end. However, Craig-Martin is nevertheless famous, especially for his early conceptual work. Notably, “An Oak Tree,” 1973, consisted of a glass of water on a shelf in an empty gallery, accompanied by a transcript of the artist interviewing himself:
Q: Do you mean the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A: No, it’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
It takes a special someone to decipher such a mind, but Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of Arts and well-known contemporary British Artist Liam Gillick expertly guided the audience through the developments in Craig-Martin’s career. The artist, a long-time teacher himself, proved to be capable of a very smooth delivery full of the things you would want such an artist to say: he wanted to achieve “a reversal of expectations,” and “to do different things simultaneously.” All very well, but not particularly fascinating or insightful. So perhaps somewhat more unusually, Craig-Martin then proceeded to explain his frustration at the limits of his earlier work.
Despite a relatively early retrospective in 1989 at the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery, he describes being exhausted by each of his pieces: “Everything I did stopped me.” Thus he began the remarkable transformation from early bad boy of the YBAs (Young British Artists, a movement still unfortunately popularized and led by Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst), to a modern Warhol, often compared to the minimalist pop genius Julian Opie.
Instead of using real objects, Craig-Martin appropriated a stencil of the object, an idea much more flexible and adaptable. He soon adopted a “disturbing, sudden and devastating, and hideous in a positive sense” program of color, for which he credits the Josef Albers color course he took in college. As his conceit became more popular, it grew increasingly adaptable. With very little effort, the aspects of scale, position and color opened up the possibilities of diverse projects that were indebted much more to the architectural play between forms and the built world.
This discussion of site-specific installations proved to be the only tenuous connection of the artist’s work to GSAPP, but it was nevertheless an extremely engaging exploration of the way in which an artist develops, and what it means to criticize something as “art.” Craig-Martin’s contemporary work relies heavily on computers and digital printing, and on a personal level, he is far removed from the creation and installation of his works, such the design for a London railway station. However, he has succeeded in pushing the extent to which we can be “distracted viewers,” viewing a work while actually participating in it. This adaptation of the forum for an artist’s expression from the realm of fine art into contemporary architecture and design is worth reflecting upon, and certainly renders meaningless the label of “kitsch.”