Michael Craig-Martin: The man who helped Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin shine

The artist and former teacher on prepping the Young British Artists for fame and why painting still puts the colour in his life

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 24:  Michael Craig-Martin poses with his work prior to an installation view at The Serpentine Gallery on November 24, 2015 in London, England.  The exhibition runs from November 24th  2015 to February 14th 2016  (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Serpentine Galleries)
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In 2013, Michael Craig-Martin took part in a BBC Four series called What Do Artists Do All Day?. If you haven't yet seen Craig-Martin's episode, let me give you the short answer: an awful lot. Now 77, the Dublin-born artist remains extraordinarily prolific. There are the large-scale public works, such as the joyous mural at Woolwich Arsenal station in London, as well as a ready supply of those brightly-coloured paintings and steel sculptures of everyday objects, for which Craig-Martin is now perhaps best known.

And there appears to be very little chance of Craig-Martin slowing down, either. He is enjoying his work far too much. “I go the studio, I work every day, I like the ongoingness,” he tells me at the Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi last week. “[And] I’ve got better, I know I’ve got better.”

When you see Craig-Martin’s gorgeous canvases of clashing colours – antidepressants in pigment form – it is hard to believe that he is also the artist responsible for some of the most intellectually challenging, if visually drab, conceptual works in British art history. This, after all, is the man who, in 1973, placed a glass of water on a shelf, alongside a piece of text, which explained that “an actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of a glass of water”. The point, Craig-Martin later wrote, was to highlight “the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say”.

Early-career Craig-Martin is certainly easier to admire than to really love – and the artist would be the first to agree. “I’m so thrilled that I did them [the conceptual works] but they were demanding in a way that was not personally fulfilling,” he says. “A lot of people consider my early work to be my serious work. This is because people are afraid of pleasure. I realised that my early work gave me no sense of continuity, which gave me no sense of personal growth.”

A woman walks past a giant shoe sculpture by Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin in the grounds of the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, Chatsworth House, near Bakewell in Derbyshire, northern England on March 12, 2014. The work is part of a three-part exhbition by the artist that includes twelve large scale sculptures placed in the historic gardens and landscape of Chatsworth and vibrantly coloured plinths inside.   AFP PHOTO / ANDREW YATES  --   RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE, MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION, TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo by ANDREW YATES / AFP)

It is this continuity – or repetition, if you like – that gives meaning to Craig-Martin’s paintings of lightbulbs, watches, iPhones, disposable coffee cups and everything else you can think of. Taken in isolation, these paintings can appear trite and overly simplistic but the sheer volume of the works transforms them into something else: a comment on our consumerist society; a catalogue of the objects we used in this particular moment of human history.

“Depth is achieved in art by sustaining something,” says Craig-Martin. “If Mondrian had done only one ‘Mondrian’, it would not have been very interesting. But a lifetime of ‘Mondrians’, hundreds of them, that’s really interesting.”

He believes that Damien Hirst's 'spot' paintings are the same. "To really understand them, you need to understand them as a whole," says Craig-Martin. Ah, Damien Hirst! It's almost impossible to speak to Craig-Martin without mentioning the one-time enfant terrible of British art. Hirst and a number of other Young British Artists (YBAs), including Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, were taught by Craig-Martin at Goldsmiths College in London during the 1980s.

It was during this period that Hirst put on the infamous Freeze exhibition in London Docklands. Director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota, turned up, as did Charles Saatchi, who became one of the biggest supporters of the YBAs, buying up much of their work, including Hirst's pickled shark and Emin's unmade bed. Freeze was the start of a decade of success – and wild excess – for the YBAs. Britain was the focus of the art world and it was Craig-Martin who had spotted their potential and prodded them into realising it.

An employee poses as he views 'Handcuffs' by Michael Craig-Martin ahead of the George Michael Collection online auction at Christie's in London, Britain, March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

“They were terribly young, they had this golden opportunity, partly that they created, partly that was landed on them, and they used this opportunity fabulously,” he says. “[The movement’s] big moment is in that initial period. They were not the people who were meant to inherit the earth, they were the marginal people who came to the foreground. That was their giant achievement and that’s why it had such an impact on British culture.”

But things change and the “marginal people” are now multi-millionaires and very much a part of the establishment. In 2012, Hirst had a career retrospective at Tate Modern; Emin now has a CBE and is Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy; and Craig-Martin happens to have a knighthood. Does that matter? “Success brings you certain things and you have to go with it,” he says. “They aren’t all the same and some people have done better than others. [But] the general achievement remains extraordinary.”

Even if Craig-Martin believes the YBAs "moment" was during that initial period, he remains an ardent supporter of their recent work. When I ask him about Hirst's Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, for example, an enormous installation of hundreds of fake objects supposedly pulled from an ancient shipwreck, Craig-Martin describes it as "one of the most extraordinary creations anybody in the history of the world has ever done".

Surely Craig-Martin never thought he’d be saying that when he starting teaching Hirst, a scruffy student from Leeds, all those years ago? Or maybe he did. “I knew at the time and thought, ‘Jeez, do you think they could actually do it?’,” he says. “I had never felt that [before].”