Michael Craig-Martin’s World in Color: The YBA Progenitor Debuts New Prints and Curates RA’s Summer Exhibition

Artsy Editorial
Jun 18, 2015 7:55PM

Michael Craig-Martin. © Mike Hoban

Are Michael Craig-Martin and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition an obvious marriage? After all, the YBA progenitor’s best known work, An Oak Tree (1973), a landmark piece of restrained conceptualism, is stylistically far removed from the carnival of the RA’s open submission exhibition, which he curated this year. Known for its maximalist hanging policy, this annual event presents a broad gamut of participant artists, from venerable Royal Academicians to able amateurs. Craig-Martin has of course moved on from his minimalist-inspired 1970s output, having turned primarily to painting in the ’90s when he embarked on the trajectory toward his now-recognizable, flat-planed, jewel-toned canvases. The Summer Exhibition is always a riot of color, and in this it is in harmony with Craig-Martin’s mature work.

Installation view of Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2015. © David Parry


In his recently published book, On Being an Artist, Craig-Martin addresses his turn to color: “Ever since I was a student, I have loved color and have been fascinated by its use, but for many years I felt unable to use it in my own work… For my generation of the 1960s, it represented all that we sought to avoid: empty formalism, banal self-expression, the decorative, the arbitrary, the indulgent.” How decisive a change. Somewhat lurid colors saturate the Royal Academy gallery walls in Craig-Martin’s Summer Exhibition, their dazzling effect enhanced by entry via Jim Lambie’s psychedelic striped Zobop staircase, marking this year’s exhibition as a thoroughly contemporary Craig-Martin affair.

As well as coordinating this mammoth exhibition (almost 1,200 works are on show) Craig-Martin has found time to produce a new series of works, “Fragments,” debuting this week at Art Basel. The “Fragments” further develop the artist’s ongoing print series “Objects of our Time,” in which he depicts everyday objects in order to reflect on contemporary life. While the subjects of “Objects of our Time” are represented in their entirety, in “Fragments” Craig-Martin zooms in for close-ups, partially obscuring his subjects and denying viewers an easy reading of each image. Drawing primarily on the fields of design and technology, the images in the series, such as Light Bulb (2015) prompt a closer look at the everyday objects we take for granted. Simplified in form and transformed by vibrant hues, his strategy of fragmentation demands more from the viewer, prompting us to reappraise the things that punctuate our lives. 

Craig-Martin’s superb grasp of color means that, however garish his choices are, they seem entirely appropriate in a given setting. Reflecting on his ongoing investigation of the properties and potential of color in his book, he writes: “Each color carries within it the capacity to reveal the full range of emotional, descriptive, psychological potential of all the others. For myself, in my own work, that meant trying to push every colour in a room or every color in a painting simultaneously to its highest pitch. Now who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue?”

—Laura Purseglove

On Being An Artist by Michael Craig-Martin is published by Art / Books

Explore the Royal Academy of Arts on Artsy.

Discover more artists at Alan Cristea Gallery.

Artsy Editorial