Emma Rudeck interviews the creator of An Oak Tree, the seminal Michael Craig-Martin.
Modern art is nothing if not exciting and interesting. It was these truths that first stimulated Michael Craig-Martin’s interest and encouraged him to become an artist. He remembers first discovering modern art aged about 13, during the late 1950s. He explains that his early experiences of art led him to believe that “I had stumbled on the world’s best secret” and confirmed within him a desire to live and work in the art world.
Craig-M artin studied fine art at Yale University in 1973. He began working at Goldsmith’s College of Art in London, where he is noted in particular for his influence over the Young British Artists (YBAs). His artwork is diverse, encompassing sculpture and painting. His influences include Magritte and Duchamp, who he describes as “my heroes”.
His work Intimate Relations is a series of acrylic paintings on aluminium panels that show a disproportioned view of everyday objects in bold, awkward colours. 4 Identical Boxes with Lids Reversed, is a conceptual piece which undermines rational logic.
Craig-Martin’s most famous work is An Oak Tree, which is now regarded as an iconic piece of conceptual artwork. Created in 1973, it comprises a tumbler of water placed on a glass shelf accompanied by an explanatory text. However, Craig-Martin insists that the piece is in fact an oak tree. The text, also called The Oak Tree interview, comprises a series of questions and answers. But instead of providing a conclusive explanation, the text proves to be a thought-provoking addition to the work as a whole.
When asked about what initially inspired such a controversial piece, Craig-Martin explains that it was driven by a need “to discover the most basic, the essential quality of all art – the bottom line – the thing that separates art from other things. My intention was to create an object of speculation.” It raises complex questions about our understanding of what makes an object a piece of art and how we perceive artwork. It is left it to the individual to judge what the piece means or even if it has any meaning.
Craig-Martin’s work is often concerned with intricate concepts. He does not avoid difficult or obscure ideas; he embraces them as part of his work. Though his work is often serious, it still contains many humorous elements. “I have always tried to deal with serious and sometimes difficult things but in ways that make them appear simple and obvious. Humour is a wonderful way of doing this,” explains Craig-Martin, “and I use it whenever possible. If I read the Oak Tree interview to an audience and they never laugh, I feel they have missed the point. Making an amusing painting is more difficult.”
As well as his work as an artist, Craig-Martin has also been involved in teaching and curating. He reveals that “making new work is always filled with a mixture of pleasure and pain, confidence and doubt. By contrast I’ve always found curating, as I did teaching, to be a simple pleasure.”
The teaching position that he held at Goldsmiths College of Art at the time when many of the YBAs were studying is of particular interest because of the influential role he had in shaping a generation of artists. Although he does not single out any individual experiences he had of teaching the YBAs, he does explain that as their teacher his “intention was to try help them develop and gain confidence in their abilities and their work so that they might overcome the challenges faced by anyone wishing to be an artist.” And he admits that he is “naturally knocked by how well they succeeded and continue to succeed.”
Craig-Martin’s new website is due to be launched in the near future.