Michael Craig-Martin: making extraordinary out of the ordinary

“When I started drawing these ordinary, everyday objects in the late 1970s, I thought they were pretty stable in the world; I assume that they would not change over time.” (On the transience of objects, On Being An Artist, Michael Craig-Martin)

Works by Irish US-educated artist, Michael Craig-Martin (b. 1941) are instantly identifiable: everyday objects painted in vivid colours delineated by a black contour. Indeed, Michael Craig-Martin values the visual immediacy of colours and objects. Colours are never mixed in his works, only lightened. Objects need to be instantly recognisable, even if their colours and scale are changed.

I was lucky enough to visit Craig-Martin’s studio in East London with Mr BB. A few finished paintings were hanging, along with unfinished works stacked against a wall, and most importantly, the “Chartpack” tape that bends and curves and that Craig-Martin uses for his signature black line was on show. The artist was welcoming and made sure he answered every question, which reminded me that he has also been a teacher since 1966, notably at Goldsmiths College where he taught emerging Young British Artists.


Craig-Martin is interested in the ordinary: everyday objects are a focus of his paintings, even the smallest such as the paper clip in ‘Eye of the Storm’ 2003. He highlighted how our perception of the ordinary has changed. He would have not painted high-value objects such as the iPhone before rather concentrating on shoes, chairs and books, but noted that the iPhone has become ordinary despite its cost. It is this transience, as is the move from analogue to digital that he wanted to convey in his Serpentine Gallery show.

 Untitled (Scales) 2014 

Craig-Martin’s objects become witnesses of an era: for instance, a compact cassette from the 1960-80s features in the Serpentine Gallery show, as well as a Personal Digital Assistant that I wasn’t familiar with, which turned out to be the ‘Palm Tungsten T-Handheld’, 2003. I observed at length the clean geometry of the objects, the perfectly uniform application of acrylic paint and, since the studio visit, the obvious black tape with its noticeable imperfections at times.

  Stack 1981

Craig-Martin noted he was seen as a conceptual artist before he added colours to his paintings but rather views himself as a perceptualist artist. In his memoir/instructional guide ‘On Being An Artist’, he notes that conceptualism “has come to be used to include any work that is difficult to place in the established categories.”

I asked him about his production of prints, having bought an iPhone print from the latest Royal Academy Summer Exhibition for iPhone-addicted Mr BB. Craig-Martin creates many prints and appreciates that they are available to many. He is able to do sets in prints, which is more difficult in painting, and goes back and forth between print and painting. 

Craig-Martin doesn’t stop at painting and prints: he views architecture as art on a large scale. He left us with a positive message that a key ingredient of success is opportunity, of which he has had numerous, such as the commission by the National Portrait Gallery to do a portrait of Zaha Hadid. For now, Transience at the Serpentine Gallery runs until 14 Feb 2016.


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