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Arts / Museums

London Calling

Michael Craig-Martin

BY Catherine D. Anspon // 10.01.14

On the eve of his 73rd birthday, the pioneering artist/teacher/curator famously known as the Goldsmiths College professor of Damien Hirst and Richard Patterson  (among others) contemplates five decades in the British art world. Would there have been any YBAs without Michael Craig-Martin? The seminal Dublin-born painter/sculptor is being honored at MTV Re:Define in April at The Goss-Michael Foundation during Dallas Arts Week 2015. From his London studio, we learn why his paintings and sculptures of prosaic and utterly commonplace objects are decidedly not Pop art, his thoughts on Lady Burlington, what really went down at Chatsworth House and why he’s got a mad crush on color.

I MUST BE A COMPLETELY MAD PERSON TO HAVE DRAWN ALL OF THESE THINGS OVER ALL OF THESE YEARS.

VISUAL MEMORIES

I grew up in Washington, D.C. in the ’50s, and there wasn’t a whole lot to see in terms of art, but there were two things. The National Gallery is a free museum because it belongs to the people, so I went there quite often. Another place I liked to visit was the Phillips Collection — an incredible private collection of the highest quality. And I’ll tell you something that was really amazing: In 1957 or ‘58, I went to the collection, and they had a room full of Rothkos. Just extraordinary. So the Phillips was a great eye opener for me. Also, when I was a teenager and my parents lived in Bogotá, Colombia, I started to take drawing classes with Antonio Roda, and he was a very good artist and a wonderful teacher. It showed me that it was possible to be an artist.

BIG MOMENTS IN YOUR PERSONAL ART HISTORY: YALE + GOLDSMITHS. 

I was really lucky because I went to Yale. I knew it was a great university and that there was an arts program, but I had no idea it was a great art school. I was really lucky to be there during one of its tremendous moments. There were also very few undergraduates in the program, so when I got there, they just threw us in with the graduate students. I found myself, at 19, in classes with people four or five years older than myself. Graduate students: Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Chuck Close. So my introduction to art was at such a high level.

TAKE US TO 1966, AFTER YOUR BFA AND MBA FROM YALE.

My close friends were people like Jonathan Borofsky, Jennifer Bartlett and Victor Burgin. Through Victor, I was looking for a job in teaching and couldn’t find one in America, so he suggested that I go to England for a year. I wrote to a bunch of schools, and one of them wrote back and said to come. That’s the reason I came to England. I never intended to stay, but one thing led to another, and here I am. When I arrived, I had no career; I was just out of college, and I didn’t know anybody, but I became sort of embedded in England. It becomes your roots.

PALETTE BREAKTHROUGH. 

For many years, really until the ‘90s, I was quite frightened of using color. The thing that happened to me … I had a gallery in Paris called Claudine Papillon Gallery, and that means “butterfly gallery.” I had this idea that I had been thinking about for years, but I hadn’t done it. The gallery had six rooms and a courtyard. So I asked if I could paint each room in the gallery a different bright color, then paint images on the walls of these rooms. The minute you walked into this gallery, you would go from a red room to a yellow room, from the yellow room to a pink room, a pink room to a turquoise room. My whole life was transformed from that experience.

ON LIGHT AND TECHNOLOGY.

I did a sequence of a series of neon works around 1975. That always interested me — everything to do with light. It’s really an old-fashioned thing, neon, and I think that if it wasn’t for artists working with neon, the whole industry would have disappeared by now. But, over the years, I’ve occasionally worked with neon, like Lightbulb, 2006, for Kunsthaus Bregenz, in Austria.

ON PORTRAITS WITH LIGHT.

Those were pre-LED technology. They are computer portraits, and they aren’t tapes or disks. They are live computers, and the computer is deciding itself, randomly, what color it should use in every different section of the portrait. So it’s almost the equivalent of a living person because it’s changing constantly. Whatever you see at any particular moment, no one else will ever see exactly the same configuration, maybe for 1,500 years … I started computer works around the early 2000s, maybe 2002. And then the portraits came a little later, around 2006. They’re quite complicated to put together.

ON YOU AND THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO.

Next year is the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, which was won by the Duke of Wellington when he defeated Napoleon. It was one of the greatest victories in British history. When he won the battle, he was a major hero, and he was given a fantastic house called Apsley House, right on Hyde Park Corner, which actually has the address of 1 London. His descendent, the present Lord Douro, has commissioned me to do a new computer portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which will hang in the house next year at the beginning of the celebration of the bicentennial. It’s an amazing honor, and an amazing thing to do. And that’s because they saw the portrait of Lady Burlington.

ABOUT YOUR ASTOUNDING PINK PLINTH ROOM.

The Duke and Duchess [of Devonshire] are such wonderful people, and they asked me to do the sculptures [on the lawn], but then they wanted me to do some kind of intervention in [Chatsworth]. It is such a vast house of such historical importance, and I was very uneasy about what to do. Finally the Duke said, “Michael, the Duchess and I really think you’ve been intimidated by the house.” And I said, “Yes, I am. That’s very true!” And he said, “I want you to tell me right now: What would you do if you didn’t feel worried?” And I said, “What I’d like to do is to have you change all of the plinths on all of the sculptures in the house and make them magenta.” And he said, “That’s fine! That’s what we’ll do!” And it actually makes the sculptures come alive. It worked better than what I could have ever imagined. There is a book in preparation, which will be called Michael Craig-Martin at Chatsworth, and there are the most fabulous pictures of all of the things I did there. It’s a stunning document, and it will be finished in the next few months.

ON THE PERILS OF EARLY FAME.

Well, I speak from the point of view of somebody who’s 73 years old. I look back and think I’ve had a fantastically interesting life. I’m very grateful now that I didn’t have my biggest success when I was 28. I’m having my biggest success now. That’s much better! I myself have never felt more engaged in things. I have opportunities that had never come to me when I was younger.

Home, chic home.

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