Michael Craig-Martin at Muzeum Sztuki Łódź, Poland (1994)

Mark Pimlott
artdesigncafé - art | 18 February 2010
This essay was previously published in the catalogue accompanying Michael Craig-Martin’s solo exhibition.


The walls of a gallery room are painted from floor to ceiling and from edge to edge in a single, intense colour. Set within the resulting overwhelming visual field is an object, an open book with empty pages, at about waist-height. It is not a real book, but a depiction of one; a drawing with a regular outline. It has the character of a diagram without any particular provenance, without the signs of an artists hand. The spaces between the lines of the drawing are filled with evenly applied colour, in keeping with the character of the drawing. The painted pages are white, the binding blue. The book is ordinary, like an idea of a book. The drawing is like the picture of this idea. The flat field of colour that it is set in, whose intensity is simultaneously attractive and repellent, becomes a field for the idea, a field that might be occupied physically and imaginatively. The book and its field—its space—have become plausible as actual. A transformation has occurred which has made it possible for the drawing of the book to be taken as a book, and for the painted surface of the wall to be taken as a space.

Scanning around this space, other things become apparent. A radiator that is a part of the equipment of the room becomes a pictorial element of this brightly coloured (taken as) space. Now the radiator is like the picture of the book, like a picture itself. In the confused condition, the mystery created by the viewers perceptions, the radiator and the book (which is, after all, a picture) have become equivalent to each other. The pictorial or imaginative space and the actual space of the room are not distanced from each other, but continuous. This has been achieved without spectacle, without illusion: it has occurred through the viewers inquiry and judgment. Everything that is visible is plainly explicable in real terms. The colours of the walls have come out of a paint tin, applied with a roller. The renderings of objects lack the sleight-of-hand or the expertise that is associated with artistry. The wall paint and the depictions of everyday household items are all known, understandable and accessible, even apparently ready for use. The viewer has taken a situation as a picture to be taken as a (fictional) situation. The process of comprehension of reality and artifice is compacted in the viewers experience of this work. The means have been provided for activating the processes that make art as ideas visible as ideas and art. These means are visible, physical, actual.


The work of Michael Craig-Martin appears in the world simply, available to sight. It appears as materials, processes, pictures and conventions of presentation which are familiar, parts of the actual world that are known and used. He presents common artefacts: boxes, bottles and glasses of water, tins of paint and brushes, clipboards, paper and pencils, spectacles and mirrors. He presents drawings of chairs and tables, light bulbs and books, filing cabinets and shoes, or, on occasion, a canvas turned away from the viewer. He presents situations which are open and ask to be read or understood. He uses the prejudices that the viewer has towards both everyday objects and works of Art to draw the viewer into what at first seems ordinary engagement. His presentations are straightforward and legible, encouraging inquiry and the application of logic. They have a didactic quality, conveying the character of models. His work is propositional. He upsets the ways that things and pictures are habitually perceived, playing back familiar elements of the known but often-dismissed world in forms and arrangements that trap the viewer in circles of paradox and tautology.

Michael Craig-Martin refuses the taking of things and Art for granted and causes the viewer to confront what he is taking them as. He acknowledges that language and function are constructed mediations between ourselves and the world, and thus contrives situations which defy their habitual transparency. However accessible his inventory of everyday objects and conventions may seem, they are located in the world as Art, both mediated and immediately distanced from how they are known in the world where they are not Art. Reconciliation must be achieved through the precarious agency of Art and its devices. Upon scrutiny of the work, the straightforwardness of its appearance is paradoxically made complex by its straightforward presentation. The devices of his art are as available for viewing as the material that is viewed: they are coincident. That which is presented in his art is often entangled in the paradoxes of Representation, which quite often appears simply (appears to be as simple) as presentation: as tautology. The circular quality of his work is confusing and disorienting. The viewer, standing before material that he feels to be well-known to him, paradoxically feels alone with something mysterious: a mystery that can be seen.

In the world that we know and use, Representation is everywhere and invisible. It is commonly deployed as if transparent, as if to offer no resistance to Desire. In a conservative view of Art, Representation is obliged to be present, to be evident, obviously transforming the real into its image or object. In the work, Representation is presented to the viewer as Representation and as presentation (as presence). It is made the agent for resolving the conflict within the viewer caused by its presence. It becomes as palpable and as known as the common material it articulates. The place of Representation is not restricted to the picture plane; it is made part of the world of things and of language. It is in the world of the viewer, fixing itself to evidence, language and function. Here, it is both pivotal and negligible; of utmost importance and utterly commonplace.


Michael Craig-Martin began making work in the mid-1960s. Born in Dublin he moved to the United States when very young, and studied Fine Art at Yale University, where he was influenced by Joseph Albers, who was Professor in Painting. Enrolled in the painting programme, he was making objects with materials that came from hardware stores; he employed processes like those of home improvement. His education occurred at a particularly fecund time, poised on the cusp of the traditions of Modernism and the burgeoning culture of its critique: it was a time of new radical practices. Among his fellow students were Victor Burgin and Richard Serra. He admired John Cage and the work of Jasper Johns. He had seen the work of Minimal artists, and its exposure in the Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966 impressed him with its directness. He moved to England in 1966, teaching first at Bath (where he began to make his first Boxes), then at Canterbury and finally at Goldsmiths College where, with Richard Wentworth and Jon Thompson, he developed its singular academic programme. His experience of contemporary American art practices contrasted sharply with those of his colleagues in Britain, who were still most familiar with American Abstract Expressionists. Both the critical writing of Clement Greenberg, and the presence of the one English artist advocated by Greenberg–– Anthony Caro–– at St Martin’s School of Art guaranteed the pre-eminence of practices close to those American models. In a parochial English scene, Michael Craig-Martin began his work there with a privileged view of new critical practices. As a sophisticated outsider, he made works such as Box That Never Closes (1967) in relative isolation.

His separateness is a characteristic particular to him, articulated clearly throughout his career. When Minimalism was finally seen in England by artists, at the Tate Gallery in 1969, Craig-Martin had moved on from making work that could be seen as directly indebted to what Donald Judd had termed specific objects. When English artists had embraced Conceptual Art, and had engaged in their own programmes of de-materialization, Craig-Martin was making work that directly employed material, and used it not as a means of illustrating the conditions through which art became visible, but as a means of articulating the particular properties of perception, the construction of the Self and of Art itself. In the 1970s, photography was being widely used by artists such as John Hilliard, John Stezaker and Victor Burgin in politicised Post-Conceptual practices. At the same time, Craig-Martin was examining picturing through drawing and painting. With the 1980s and the resurgence of expressive painting, he worked with picturing-objects that were distinctly anti-expressive. The return by English artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s to activities reminiscent of Minimal and Conceptual strategies was paralleled by Michael Craig-Martin’s continuing work on picturing, and particularly painting. It is as if Craig-Martin has always chosen to take an askance view of the preoccupations of his time. This is akin to the model-like character of his own oeuvre.


The direct and uncompromising character of Michael Craig-Martin’s work can be traced back to his appreciation of the stage prepared for Minimal, Conceptual and Pop Art by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The directness of this very appreciation provides a model for looking at Craig-Martin’s own work and for looking again at Minimalism. For him, the character of their work was carried forward by radical artists throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which he defined as follows: detachment; irony; use of commonplace objects and imagery; use of secondary imagery, repeated units, mechanical processes; linguistic and conceptual concerns; interest in perceptual psychology and the role of the viewer; fascination with both the concept of reductivism and the work of Marcel Duchamp; acceptance of meaning latent in different materials and in the process of making; openness to the use of any and all materials; indifference to the apparent divisions between high and low culture; indifference to the distinction between abstraction and representation; denial of hierarchy; denial of absolute values; commitment to the notion of the radical based on continual questioning of fundamental assumptions; primacy given to simplicity, clarity, directness and immediacy; assertion of the physical rather than the metaphysical or the metaphoric (Craig-Martin: 1989, page 6).

If this defines a tradition to which Michael Craig-Martin pays heed, then he extends this tradition: in the context of Minimal and Conceptual art practices, his work of the 1960s is distinguished by its manner of visible enactment of logical and function processes. In his earliest works, which most closely resemble Minimal Art, there are, instead of that arts priority towards non-referential phenomenological experience, displays of non-linear processes (as a sequence or arrangement or variation) which must be seen. Seeing these works demands something close to reading: the logical intervention of the viewer into the work and the production of its meaning. This notion of the viewers role in making the work is the legacy of Marcel Duchamp and the inheritance of Conceptual Art, in whose presentations the viewer is continuously implicated.

In Minimal Art, what was physically presented to the viewer was intended to constitute the entirety of its presentness. The object or arrangements physical properties, its relation to its setting or condition (its place), its specificity were all precisely articulated as a manifested address to which the viewer related. In pieces by Michael Craig-Martin which draw on a resemblance to Minimal Art, there is an extension of its terms of what is made visibly available to the viewer. This at once uses Minimalism’s prioritization of form, arrangement, number, variation, repetition and series development; and destroys the dominance of these properties by providing openings to the possibility of use: of engagement that is physical and procedural in real terms. The universality of Minimalism is transformed into the possibility of the universality (or transparency) of function. However, once proposed by Craig-Martin, function becomes a surface or threshold which the viewer is compelled to cross either physically, socially or by imaginative extension. Function loses its assumed transparency and becomes palpable. And, as the notion of function in this early work is encountered in the imagination of the viewer, it is that imagination and its map of relations that becomes tangible.


In Michael Craig-Martin’s early work, a logical system is displayed, always appearing simply, and often as a conundrum, a visible deception, an available miracle using commonplace material. What the viewer stands before is simultaneously an appearance and a thought. Craig-Martin has said of this work that he wanted to set an equivalence between function and process (Cooke: 1989, page 14). In it, functional objects appear, things whose uses are as well-known as the language used in everyday speech. They are arranged, suggesting order and logic. Their look-of-use invites physical or mental use. The space between engagement and reading, function and process becomes ambiguous, as does the location of these terms: do they reside in the viewer or the work?

Progression of Five Boxes with Lids Reversed (1969) is plainly available to the viewers sight, experience and reading, and openly part of the viewers world. There are five well-constructed plywood boxes in a line, all of which have lids. Each is clearly different. Four of the boxes’ lids are opened, while the lid of the central box is closed, forming a slightly tall cube. The other boxes seem to be proportional variants of the central one. Imagining the lids closed, they might form other cubes. In the midst of mental action, it becomes clear that there is an error; that the lids that are fitted so well to their boxes actually complete other boxes in the set of five. Indeed, the lids for the boxes on the ends could be exchanged, as could those on either side of the central box, achieving the formation of complete plywood volumes: a Minimalist series. Yet, Michael Craig-Martin Mark Pimlott Muzeum Sztuki Lódz although this mental picture of the arrangement may be complete, what is still visible is another: one whose very constitution now seems dependent on this imaginative movement. Both the real and the pictured are present and interdependent.

In the work of 1969-72, logical or functional arrangements are typically wrong, or so exaggeratedly protracted that a sense of wholeness seems stretched to breaking point. The viewer follows (or leads) the work and himself to a moment of complete isolation, deferring collapse by regenerating a latent desire for coherence and completeness. In the end, the viewer must surrender to belief in the works completeness, self-sufficiency and otherness: a completely paradoxical demand given the work’s absolute dependence on imaginative structures imported by the viewer.

On the Table (1970) is such a work. Four buckets full of water rest upon a table top. The top has no table legs to support it: the arrangement is suspended in mid-air, hanging by ropes from the ceiling. The ropes are connected to both the table top and the handles of the buckets of water. On scrutiny, it is seen that each piece of rope connects the table top to a bucket of water via a pulley. The table top and the four buckets are in balance, the weight of each being equal and opposite. Here, the equivalence of weight is transformed into an equivalence or norm of appearance, so that what appears to the viewer is both normal—four buckets resting on a table—and impossible by virtue of mechanics which are in opposition to the formation of the normal (or simply opposite to the form of the normal: the table legs which support a table top and allow it to resist the weight of the water-filled buckets are replaced by ropes and pulleys). Again, thesis and antithesis are made to co-exist in one situation. Perhaps as a precursor to something which becomes very important in Michael Craig-Martin’s later work, the suspended ensemble— weightless by means of rope and pulley—resembles a picture.


The viewer is constantly asked to drop his defences: to allow things that function in one way to function in another; to contemplate use rather than simply sight (to be active rather than passive); to take things as pictures. As function is broken down, so too is the normal, the habitual, the agreement of language. Use is no longer transparent, but stumbled over and made into imaginative construction. Things become the means by which they are re-presented. Nothing in the work remains purely what it is in the world. The condition of uncertainty that ensues has been determined by the viewer. The surrender that is demanded of the viewer is at the same time his own product. The identity of the producer-viewer is the subject of works made in 1972 and 1973 for large audiences. In Society (1973), a series of identical small mirrors at eye-height are arranged in a line. Under each, a handwritten statement is proposed to the mirrored viewer (the viewing Self). These statements (Craig-Martin: 1973) draw out the Self’s reality as complex, extended and constantly contextualised (even foreign or other to itself). While confronting his reflection in each mirror, the viewer is asked to see himself as others would: the evident Self is asked to co-exist with the perceived Self. The statements moving in and out of self-description and imagined description by an other both describes the dissipation of the viewer’s sense of wholeness under such (self-) scrutiny and the struggle to establish that wholeness. The arrangement provokes an urge to coherence, a desire for completeness. Significantly, it is the Self which must be held together, which must be believed in.


An ordinary glass of water rests on an ordinary glass shelf high on a gallery wall. At eye height, a printed conversation between an interviewer and the artist is placed on the wall.

Q: To begin with, could you describe this work?
A: Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q: The accidents?
A: Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size...
Q: Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A: No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
––fragment of printed text from An Oak Tree (1973)

The conversation continues to work upon the transformation of the glass of water, yet it is clear that a physical explanation that might be expected to describe the transformation is not being offered. The act of transformation is referred to, the point at which the glass of water becomes an oak tree, the agent of that change is discussed, yet the reader, the artist and interviewer (the same person in this constructed auto-interview) consistently falter upon that which cannot be logically supported. To continue, artist and interviewer (viewer-surrogate) must simply believe in proceeding with further questions.

Q: When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree?
A: When I put water in the glass.
Q: Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?
A: No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.
Q: Then intention causes the change?
A: I would say that it precipitates the change.
Q: You don’t know how you do it?
A: It contradicts what I feel I know about cause and effect.

For both the viewer and the artist, faith is required to sustain the conversation, sustain the oak tree. The transformation and its explanation acquires the quality of a miraculous event, a transubstantiation (in the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass, the Eucharist is transformed into the Body of Christ: take this and eat it, for this is my Body).

The viewer must cross a threshold of belief. This is not to say that An Oak Tree is a religious work. Rather, the transubstantive provides a model for the exemplary working relationship between Art and its viewer that creates meaning. In An Oak Tree, Michael Craig-Martin reveals the function within Art. Here, function is not separate from Belief, but continuous with the complex set agreements of language and of faith which allow one to negotiate one’s relationship with the world and with being. Craig-Martin forces the issue, and acknowledges the arbitrariness of these agreements, their instability and their innate potential for creating meaning. In making the work of Art (which he has already insisted is the joint work of artist and viewer), it is the terrain of Belief which must be entered. The knowledge, language, culture and commonplace belief of the individual viewer is disrupted in confrontation with the threshold of Art— its surface— provoking profound solitariness.

An Oak Tree is pivotal in Michael Craig-Martin’s oeuvre because of the nature of its radicality. All of its workings are concomitant with its surface. Its surface foregrounds its existence as a surface of belief, achieving this without declaring itself either as Picture, Painting, Sculpture, specific object or even Concept. And yet, it is a model for the workings of all of these, and particularly for the Picture.


The work that Michael Craig-Martin has made in the twenty years that have passed since the appearance of An Oak Tree can be viewed as an abundance of inquiries of the possibilities of picturing, made evident with the most direct and minimal of means. He has used drawing, Painting, and objects as means of developing direct experiences of Representation and its place in the viewer’s physical and conceptual structuring of the world. Each new body of work shares the quality of his texts, which methodically question and characterize their subject of scrutiny.

In a series of works in neon of 1975, Michael Craig-Martin made pieces which highlighted the procedural logic that is used in reading drawings. Pacing (1975) is a simple assembly of neon segments switched on with a timer. One section, which is continuously alight, suggests an open portal, while other segments are switched on sequentially to suggest a passing door. At once, what becomes evident are the paucity of means used (a couple of straight bits are switched off, another couple of straight bits are switched on), and how those very means convey movement within the picture. Furthermore, it is not the picture which is moving, as in cinematography (which is certainly a reference), but the viewer who is implicated in constructing the pictures motion: hence Pacing is the viewer’s own imagined pacing, through the picture. The viewer is always reminded that his desire for the realism of the picture is determined by his own transformation of inanimate material. In A Short Film for Zeno (1975), which references Zeno’s Paradox, the futility of endlessly segmenting motion (a representational model used to describe its reality) is paralleled by Craig-Martin’s neon components, which are at the same time vehicles and obstacles for the viewer’s picturing of the completed movement of an arrow between a beginning and an end.

The viewer’s desire for the completed picture which describes a reality is used consistently by Michael Craig-Martin as a means of providing space for the viewer’s imaginative intervention. A series of paintings from 1976 consist of two parts: a large, unprimed, unpainted canvas; and inserted into the corner of that canvas, another: a painting by an amateur purchased in a market. In Untitled Painting no. 4 (1976), a copy of Monet’s painting of the Gare Saint-Lazare rests, like a sign, in the upper left-hand corner of an empty canvas. The ensemble has the character of a page of text intended to be captioned or written upon. Mentally, the viewer is compelled to reconcile the fullness of the tiny picture and the emptiness of the blank canvas, by adding to the picture, by extending the act of picturing. The blank surface is materially coherent as canvas drawn taut over stretchers, yet, it is taken as necessarily the space for a picture. Its status is as a space that is yet to be filled. This is not simply an instance of coercing the viewer into projecting an image onto a space that begs it; rather, Craig-Martin has caused the viewer to take the canvas as a picture. He has made visible (although there is nothing to see) the prejudice the viewer calls upon when looking at painting.


In An Oak Tree, a demand had been made of the viewer (to which the viewer agreed, unsteadily) that a glass of water is taken as an oak tree, all the while remaining, evidentially, a glass of water. It is characteristic of looking at Pictures (it is the Picture’s story) that what is there is taken as something it is not. A painting (either if it is abstract or representational) of a vase of flowers is clearly not a vase of flowers, but a picture of one. However, it can become a vase of flowers through its own agency: through picturing. A paradigmatic picture might be one in which both the vase of flowers and the material with which the picture are made are in the same time and space present and in tension with each other. This tension is marked out in Craig-Martin’s own text of 1978, Taking Things as Pictures, which was inspired by Robert Sokolowski’s essay Picturing of 1977 (Craig-Martin: 1978; Sokolowski: 1997). Constructed pictures draw our attention to the object which is absent, the pictured. Although pictures refer away from themselves to the object pictured, they do not indicate something different from themselves in the way that signs do. Many symbols are pictures, but they symbolize something different from what they picture. Pictures do not merely refer to the pictured, but make the pictured present. There is a difference between a thing and its presence. Recognizing that a thing remains itself whether it is present or absent makes naming and picturing possible. Picturing enables us to experience the presence of a thing without the thing itself. Pictures are a form of presentation of things. Pictures manifest both the presence of the object (the picture) and the presence of the pictured. To see one object as another (to picture) is to create a tension between the presence of the former and that of the latter. To take something as a picture is to allow the presence of the pictured to overwhelm the presence of the picture. Craig-Martin goes further to point out that not all Art is to be taken as pictures, and that picturing (particularly at the time of writing his text) is too frequently mistakenly identified with Art (made equivalent to it), or taken for granted. It is typical of the artist that he should advocate the examination of the evident or the obvious, which is constantly in danger of disappearing into use. His own work stands at the threshold of this disappearance.

Michael Craig-Martin at Muzeum Sztuki Lodz: 1 | 2