The octogenarian contemporary artist on recognising authenticity, celebrating the paradox of beauty, and the physical experience of art in a digital age
There are few figures to have had more wide-reaching impact on the British art scene than the Dublin-born artist Michael Craig-Martin. His bright fluorescent transformations of the ubiquitous manufactured objects that crowd our everyday lives are instantly recognisable in the lexicon of contemporary art, and his long career at the cutting-edge of visual culture has witnessed innumerable exhibitions at some of the most prestigious galleries across the globe. He is also noted for shaping the minds of many of the most iconic and established artists of our era, working as a teacher and conceptual axis at Goldsmiths throughout the 80s – those who cite him as an influence include the likes of Patrick Caulfield, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas… the list goes on.
Suffice to say, the distinctive aesthetic he has furrowed since his debut exhibition at The Rowan Gallery in London in 1969, in both pronounced oversized sculptures and bright, eye-popping paintings, is hugely respected, and his unique investigations into our relationships with functional objects were even given the royal seal of approval in 2016, when he was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. At 80 years old his creative output is just as vibrant, challenging and essential as it has always been – testament to which are the permanent public sculpture of a gargantuan pink fountain pen he had unveiled in Oxford earlier this year, and a current major show of paintings at Reflex in Amsterdam entitled All Things Considered.
Here, the always modest artist and teacher tells us why great art does not lie, explains why there is no substitute for the physical experience of an artwork, and reflects on a career that has been as inspirational as it has been inspired.
John-Paul Pryor: Can you recall what switched you on to art as a child?
When I was about nine years old (1950) my parents rented a modest villa situated between Juan les Pins and Antibes for a month. It was my first experience of France, the Riviera, and the Mediterranean. The area was still uncrowded and completely unspoiled. One day we went to the Picasso Museum in Antibes where I saw ‘modern art’ for the first time. I was immediately transfixed by Picasso’s paintings. From my earliest childhood I was fascinated by everything visual and everything modern. Art seemed to be the apogee of both. When I was 14 we lived for a year in Bogota where my parents met a Spanish artist living in Colombia. I started to do drawing lessons twice a week with him. He was a wonderful person, married with two children, living in an apartment and studio. It was the first time I was able to see that one could have life as an artist in the contemporary world other than a garret in Paris. It made me think maybe I could become an artist too.
Would you say the desire to express oneself via art is intrinsic, chosen or learned?
It’s a combination of all three. Essentially the desire to make art as a life is intrinsic, instinctive, a passionate desire over which one has only modest control. Otherwise I don’t think it is sustainable or worth the effort. I like to think that I chose to be an artist but I never seriously wanted to do anything else. One does need to learn through work how to turn one’s desire into action, and one can. Art arises as manifestation of one’s full identity. Art is only possible when one is in touch with oneself. What gets expressed is not just what we intend but what can’t avoid, can’t hide. The term ‘expression’ implies to me that we can make a choice about what we ‘express’ but, ultimately, we can’t. Art doesn’t lie. If you are a liar it will inevitably show in your art (which will tell the truth).
You taught many of the YBA generation – how do you view that period of British art in retrospect?
I think it was the most important period in British art since the 60’s. It was a time of dynamic and ambitious creative confidence and energy, and the result was culturally and socially transformative. The importance of art in contemporary life was utterly changed. The defining characteristic of the YBA generation was not any form of artistic or aesthetic similarity but rather their particularly intense, assertive, and clearly defined individualism. They shared an attitude not a look. Virtually all the major artists of that time remain highly active and creative. They are still too young (despite their now advanced age) to reveal a true picture of their achievement. One has to say that Damien has continued to prove to be a unique force of nature.
Do you think an art movement can ever again be as disruptive as it was in that moment?
That is an interesting question. The most ‘disruptive’ period in art in my lifetime was the 60’s. In Britain the second was the 90’s. There’s a long gap between the two. The voracious acceptance of virtually every form of expression in the current art scene and art market makes the possibility of a truly disruptive art hard to imagine. But who knows? It seems to me the age of the kind of movements that characterised the 20th century is over. Cubism, Expressionism, Minimalism…There are no more isms.
How do you recognise authenticity in an artwork?
There is no absolute guarantee, but all good art involves a genuine and intense personal engagement between the artist and the work that is usually palpable. With unfamiliar work I look for a clear voice. Art doesn’t lie. The artist’s strengths and limitations cannot easily be missed or disguised. It is much harder to fake things than people imagine because you can’t fake passion.
How can exposure to art help us to self-actualise? Is this a key role of art?
The experience of art is personal, fragile and often transient. It comes about when the contact between the viewer and the object becomes charged. Most importantly it happens in the viewer, not the object, and is not dependant on the quality of the artwork. Great art can leave one untouched, while something obviously minor can trigger a true experience of art. When it happens the viewer brings the object alive. It may not happen again next time or it may happen every time one sees that work. What moves me may leave you cold. There are no rules.
What kind of conversations do you hope your latest work will be a catalyst for?
I hope to touch the imagination of anyone viewing my work no matter how that might be. I have two personal interests. The first is about the wonder of the phenomenon of two-dimensional image making and our ability to ‘read’ such images. It seems to me to be the basis of all language and therefore all learning, but we learn it so early as infants we barely recognise it as a special gift. The second is an appreciation of how the functional objects we create connect us and manifest in the simplest, clearest ways our ideas, values, and feelings.
How do you think the digital age has changed the way in which we experience art?
While interest in art has never been higher, even before the pandemic, visitor numbers to galleries had dropped significantly, presumably because it was increasingly possible to view exhibitions online. The last two years has increased the sense that viewing online is an acceptable substitute for physical experience. Many people are now prepared to buy works of art they have not seen. Never have people been so engulfed by visual images and experience but most have little capacity for sustained and critical looking that painting can require, and need the stimulation of constant change. I personally believe passionately in the importance of being in the physical presence of an artwork. My own paintings are fundamentally dependant on the experience of their unique physicality and scale, neither of which can be experienced in reproduction or on screen, where the work is reduced to graphics. Undoubtedly, we will see the rise of more and more art meant only to be seen onscreen – NFTs for example. Art will adapt.
How much impact do you think art really has in a wider socio-political context?
I honestly don’t know how to think about this question. I am not aware that I have ever had my opinion changed on any socio-political issue by an artwork. Artworks refer to such issues, associate themselves in common cause, but rarely go further. I have had my sense of what’s important, beautiful, relevant, meaningful changed by art. I am a news addict. My socio-political views are profoundly affected and often changed by the news, by what I read, by political discourse. A news photo can move me to tears.
How inspired have you been by literature as an artist?
I was very influenced by what I read when I was younger and the ideas of those writers remain important to me today. Sam Beckett, John Cage, Gertrude Stein, Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Chandler, Luis Borges, Michel Foucault. However, I came to feel that the philosophical writers were limiting rather than opening me because I tended to try to get my work to reflect their ideas. I found some sense of liberation when I stopped trying to please them. Today, I find I read constantly but I almost never finish a book. Is it my age, the sound-bite world of the Internet, or something else? I don’t know.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in life so far?
Continuing to be as engaged and excited by doing my work as I ever was. And finding I have an ever increasing audience. When I was a student there was a lot of art being made that was strong on beauty but short on ideas. Today the opposite is true. The two need not be mutually exclusive. Beauty comes in many, sometimes contradictory, forms, but in art it is essential.
All Things Considered exhibits at Reflex in Amsterdam until December 15th