Michael Craig-Martin is well known for having taught most of the artists known as YBAs. His relationship with Damien Hirst, in particular, has made him the unofficial spokesperson for a generation. Meeting him in his studio in Islington, where he has been for the past 10 years, we sit among his impressive library, with books on Michelangelo, Hirst, Mondrian, Sarah Lucas and Matisse.
Born in Dublin in 1941, Craig-Martin says he is Irish, although he was educated mostly in the US where his father was working. It was while at Yale School of Art that he applied to teach at Bath School of Art, arriving later in London, where he has resided since.
Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (1973) is a glass of water standing on a shelf: a seemingly simple concept that has during the ensuing decades attracted much attention. “I obviously hit on something because the work continues to resonate with people and becomes more and more well known.”
It was once banned from importation into Australia on the grounds that it was “vegetation”, forcing him to admit that the work was “merely” a glass of water. “My idea for Oak Tree was asking what is the bottom line for a work of art, and the answer turned out to be the willingness of the viewer to make the necessary leap of faith.”
Although Craig-Martin’s most recent work appears more traditional, being painting- and sculpture-based, it still follows this earlier investigation into the essence of art being “to allow poetry to happen.”
In the adjoining painting studio, it seems as if Craig-Martin is moving towards a singular choice in his selection and portrayal of objects.
The subjects – a computer, a mobile phone – are set against a black background, instead of the pop-y turquoise and fuchsia that I have come to expect of him. “It has made the colours pop in an interesting way,” he says, looking at them. “I took drawing classes from the time I was 14, and I always drew the black edges of things. I was not interested in shading.”
Craig-Martin does not believe in the elitist attitude of much of contemporary art, saying that what was great about pop art was that it was so popular. He points at his book on Michelangelo. “My favourite historical period has always been the early Italian Renaissance and what I find so important is that brilliant people made beautiful art that was meaningful and understandable by both illiterate peasants and the most educated people of the time. They all knew that they were looking at something wonderful.”
Alongside more domestic work, Craig-Martin’s forays into large-scale architectural interventions bring colour and life into often gloomy urban architectural spaces. In his attempt to make “sense of the world” he manages to create a happier environment for us all.