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Michael Craig-Martin on Painting and Conceptual art

Artist and teacher Michael Craig-Martin discusses his contribution to 'The Indiscipline of Painting' at Tate St Ives with Rupert White.




You're best known for your early conceptual work, and more latterly for figurative image-based paintings and sculpture. Is the painting in this show (right) somewhere between the two?

Yes. The paintings of this kind - that mix objects and abstract paintings - sit in the middle. I was doing drawings of objects before and after, but there was an interregnum when I tried some other things. This painting comes from that period, and at the time no-one had any interest in it and so I was amazed when Daniel (Sturgis) said that he'd seen it in some obscure catalogue and wondered if he could borrow it.

The painting had been destroyed so I had to remake it for the exhibition, but it was nice to have a reason to remake it.


Did the process of remaking feel a bit strange?

Yes. In the seventies I had a studio fire where I lost a lot of work so a lot of it had to be remade. It is funny - the experience of remaking things because as you're planning the remaking, things come back to you: decisions you made about why it goes together this way, or why you did this. You would never think of those things unless you were in the process of doing it again.


As you walk around the painting, you see an additional column of either red or black dashes reflected in the mirror. Mirrors feature in a few of your early works.

I did use mirrors quite a bit. These latter works were really paintings in which I was trying to mix real objects, like mirrors, in with painting. Basically I was trying to get the two to act together.


Then, as you say, in the 80's you moved to more figurative work - and there were a few British conceptual artists who took a similar step...

I started doing drawings of objects in the late 70's. At the time the only way that people who worked like I did tended to have images of things was to take photographs, and I wasn't interested in taking photographs so that's why I started drawing. But I wanted my drawings to be very cool, very uninflected.


They had photographic qualities...

Yes. It was to try and give drawings the dispassionate qualities that one associates with photographs of things.


They have a Pop Art feel too...

When I was a student I saw all the Pop Art shows and the first Minimal shows and both of those things were very powerful influences. And I've taken things over the years - aspects of one and aspects of the other - but I've never thought of myself of doing either Pop art or Minimalist art. But there are elements of both that have informed what I do.


And over the years you must have got used to being shown in painting shows like this...

I always feel that what I do disappoints the hardcore conceptualists and also disappoints the hardcore painters! Very often the art world today is described in terms of painting on one side and conceptual art on the other, as two things in opposition. But I have never seen that as a proper way to divide things and this show is a perfect example of painting which has a strong conceptual base - but it's still obviously painting.


People are using the term conceptual painting now...

And I don't think that is inappropriate. There is a way in which painting is in itself a highly conceptualised activity. That somehow it's not conceptual is unintelligible. But also there are videos that are much more like a certain kind of expressionist painting than some paintings are, and those videos would be more properly understood in terms of expressionist painting than in terms of video art.


It's impossible to make a completely spontaneous or instinctual painting.

Every painting is planned. When Jackson Pollock was doing the drip paintings he didn't come into the studio by accident and start dripping. Of course it's spontaneous - the actual physical act of doing it - but not in the sense of having some sense of what he is trying to achieve. You need to have some idea of what you're doing in order to act. You can't just go in cold and hope for the best, you have to set up certain circumstances for yourself and then you act within that...


And this show is a reminder of that: of some of the possible thinking processes involved in making a painting.

I think it's a particularly interesting exhibition because abstract painting is extremely unfashionable because there is an assumption that its too rarified and not really readable enough.

But one of the great things about this exhibition is that if you really didn't understand this kind of work but you came and walked through this exhibition - without reading any cards or any explanation - you would understand it. Because the works all speak to each other and they've been so cleverly chosen, each one informs the next one. You have a clear sense of a particular area of artistic activity.


Which feels very legitimate and logical

 Yes, and the differences between each one are so pronounced and informed you realise how much understanding there is behind what appear to be very small decisions.


Its a subtle, very visual thing. Difficult to talk or write about...

You're right. You have to come here and look at it...




Pictures above: Mirror Painting (1990-2011), Forwards and Reverse Simultaneously (1972), Reading with Globe (1980), Pitchfork (2008)

See 'exhibitions' for installation shots of The Indiscipline of Painting exhibition