Michael Craig-Martin

Whitechapel Gallery

In Michael Craig-Martin’s work, although everything is laid out upon the surface, there is more here than meets the eye. In this, his first retrospective, which includes constructions, neon works, wall drawings, relief sculptures, and paintings, he succeeds in making the invisible visible. An Oak Tree, 1973, guarding the entry, is the only piece that clearly goes beyond appearance. It consists of a glass of water perched on a glass shelf some nine feet up a wall, together with a short text in which the artist says that he has turned the glass of water into an oak tree. The difference between the invisible oak and our seeing, say, a flat Craig-Martin steel drawing as an actual globe is that, in seeing the globe, we can see that the drawing has been physically altered to accord with our seeing. With the oak, we see that the glass of water is still a glass of water. For this reason, to see one thing as another is to be at one remove from the physical world of appearance. Objects are seen and handled as images, images as objects.

Craig-Martin does not fit into the Conceptualist box, though he admits the movement’s formative influence on his work. His interest lies primarily in things, not in the ideas about them. But his objects can be so abstract that the distinction between the object and the idea of it disappears. In Eight Foot Balance with Two Reinforced Plywood Sheets, 1970, two boards are held upright by nothing but each other’s weight, conveyed by a wire running between them. Because the boards balance, nothing else can enter the equation, not even gravity, from which the boards have been abstracted as if they had a perfect life of their own elsewhere. Gravity is thus also turned into an abstraction.

Craig-Martin does not embrace any of the great idealist philosophies of the West in that he sees the object as insubstantial. When Edmund Husserl tries to describe the constitution of the object that is consciousness, the aim is to capture the total, experienced reality of the object. Not so in Craig-Martin. Thus his wall drawings, done around 1980 with packaging tape, are giant images of assorted everyday objects pared down to essentials. These are images of schematic objects, bound so tightly together that they must be immaterial to fit. It doesn’t matter what a chair is made of, or what size it is, as long as it has the form of a chair. This immaterial, free-floating idea of a chair is what a Craig-Martin chair feels like: Plato isn’t far away. In Untitled (Television), 1989, in the center of each of two panels, the artist has painted an identical image of a portable television. But the images are so impoverished and abandoned that we cannot merely see them as televisions. The fact that they are images won’t go away, making them as intractable as the glass of water in An Oak Tree. Craig-Martin’s work raises a question: why bother with the object if it is this insubstantial? Perhaps seeing objects as so abstract is a step toward dissolving the category of the object altogether.

Conor Joyce