Michael Craig-Martin is among the most influential conceptual artists in the world. His iconic, candy-coloured paintings and sculptures of everyday objects investigate semiotic relationships between objects and images as perceived by humans and interpreted in language and communication. His main mediums include painting and sculpture. He often integrates ready-mades into his sculptural works, inspired by the American Minimalist tradition. This is illustrated in one of his most famous pieces, An Oak Tree from 1973 – a poetic work with a glass of water on a glass ledge with a text claiming it is in fact an oak tree in an altered physical form.
“It was a distillation of everything I had been thinking about for years. It was one of those rare occasions when it said everything I wanted to say.”, says the artist.
Born in 1941 in Dublin, Ireland, Craig-Martin received a rigorous religious education in a Roman Catholic school run by nuns and later the equally strict English Benedictine Priory School. It was here that he received his first glimpse into art history by one of the priests, who was himself an artist and dedicated a lecture to Mark Rothko.
After moving to the US, Craig-Martin studied painting at Yale University under Alex Katz, Al Held and the famous artist Josef Albers who was a huge influence on his interest in Minimalism and Bauhaus. He received his MFA in 1966. The clean Bauhaus-style focus on form and geometrics was reflected in his works of the 60s and 70s in his sculptural works recalling Duchampian ready-mades and his three-dimensional drawings of boxes, such as Longbox from 1967. It was in the 90s that he returned to painting and found his now signature style of bright-coloured, conceptual pieces focusing on language and symbols:
“I'm interested in exploiting the simplest of things to create things that are not so simple. A book, a chair, a shoe, with the colours red, green, yellow, pink, purple. I try to use colours in their purest form.”
The vibrant colour palette of the stained-glass windows of churches are echoed in these new works, rooting back to Craig-Martin’s early years of religious education.
Upon his return to Europe he became one of the most influential conceptual artists on the British scene and started teaching at Goldsmiths College School of Art, London. Here he was a professor to many of the YBA artists including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, and helped promote Hirsts’s Freeze exhibition in 1988. His first solo presentation took place at the Rowan Gallery in London in 1969, followed by a group exhibition of British conceptual art the Hayward Gallery three years later. Other significant presentations include a retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1989 and a presentation of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1991. He was in a group exhibition in 1996 called Un siecle de sculpture anglaise at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, and he represented Britain at the 23rd Sao Paulo Bienal in 1998. His second large-scale retrospective was at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin (2006) followed by the third at the Serpentine Gallery (2015). Other notable institutions he has shown in include Kunstvereins in Dusseldorf, Stuttgart and Hannover, Kunsthaus Bregenz and IVAM in Valencia.
He is also known for his public artworks, such as permanent wall pieces for the Laban Dance Centre in London in collaboration with famous architects Herzog and deMeuron, the Woolwich Arsenal DLR station and multiple wall-based works for the HDI Gerling Headquarters in Hannover.
He is represented in various prestigious collections worldwide, such as the MOMA in New York, Tate Modern in London, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He is consistently performing well on the secondary market, his work Las Meninas having fetched an especially high price at auction in London in 2016.
As of today, Martin is represented by Gagosian and Cristea Roberts galleries in London, where he lives and works. He was made knight in 2016 in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to British art. A pioneering figure of British conceptual art, his daring and evocative legacy will always sustain its contemporaneity in its examination of our language and social code. As he says, “I'm essentially a constructor, a putter-togetherer of things. I see my paintings as being informed by my years of making sculpture. I think of my paintings as flat sculptures.”