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It’s all about give and take for Michael Craig-Martin

″Untitled (with tennis ball)″ (2020) [MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN, GAGOSIAN]

A glass of water sits on a transparent glass shelf which has been fixed to a wall with metal brackets. The shelf is located about head height and bolted to its left-hand side is the text of an interview.

This piece is titled “An Oak Tree” (1973) and is by 80-year-old Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin.

The interview takes on the form of a Q&A and explains why the glass is referred to as an oak tree instead of what it actually is.

“The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water,” Craig-Martin answers in the text, and adds, “Just as it is imperceivable, it is also inconceivable.”

Although the text is not very helpful in resolving the perplexity, (one could say that it actually aggravates it) this very conceptual work of art helped Craig-Martin gain recognition as a critically acclaimed artist.

“An Oak Tree” (1973) by Michael Craig-Martin, currently on view at the Hangaram Art Museum [SHIN MIN-HEE]

“An Oak Tree” (1973) by Michael Craig-Martin, currently on view at the Hangaram Art Museum [SHIN MIN-HEE]

“An Oak Tree” is currently on show for the first time in Asia at the Hangaram Art Museum in southern Seoul, as part of the artist’s solo retrospective “Here and Now.”

The large-scale exhibition is filled with Craig-Martin’s artworks from the 1970s to his more recent pieces, and it is “by far the biggest exhibition I’ve ever had in the world,” Craig-Martin said during a press interview at the Hangaram Art Museum last month.

Apart from “An Oak Tree,” Craig-Martin has created acrylic paintings on canvases, depicting cartoonish versions of everyday objects or random words like “desire” or “soul” with vivid colors.

The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

Michael Craig-Martin [MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN]

Michael Craig-Martin [MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN]

Q. You tend to use everyday objects in your paintings but with vivid colors. Why is that?

A. Well, my work started from drawings of objects. Mostly, they are mass-produced, man-made objects. They’re not unique objects. In order for me to draw an object, I need them to be familiar to everybody as much as possible. They need to be universal. I make the drawings as precise as possible to the objects. I don’t invent; I just record.

These mass-produced objects, by their nature, are the same. I mean, I have my iPhone, but what’s important [is that] it’s my iPhone. It’s very personal. I don’t want your iPhone, I want mine. And for me, the color is what makes the general object specific to the painting. I’m not trying to copy the color of the objects. The color completes the object as it makes the individual painting.



Most of your acrylic paintings are called “Untitled,” no matter what they are portraying. Can you explain the reasoning behind that?

I don’t make the objects; I make the images of the objects. My interest is in the possibility of its representation. The miracle of our understanding images is that we see an object that is not really there.

We look at images and we take them for granted. I try to make images that make people stop for a moment and look at the image and think about what it is.

[For example] the cassette, you know what it’s for. I didn’t tell you; you know what the shape of it is, you know what it’s made of, the size, you know everything about it. I don’t give you any of the information. That is your imagination. I try to deal with the raw, most basic experiences and take away everything else.



Your works are about simple objects and are very colorful. In the viewers’ mind, they may seem similar to pop art. Would you consider yourself a pop artist?

I never think of myself as a pop artist. I think to me, pop art is very special in that it has to do with images mediated through the media, like advertising, and they have a commentary. I’m more interested in something direct between the objects and the image. That’s why I paint the violin, because the modern violin is the same thing as an old violin. There are some objects that stay the same and others [like a cassette], the concept is already an ancient object; young people will have no idea what this is. Many of these images will become unreadable in the future.

″Untitled (flirtshirt)″ (2011) [SHIN MIN-HEE]

″Untitled (flirtshirt)″ (2011) [SHIN MIN-HEE]

Your works have changed significantly, from the conceptual art piece “An Oak Tree” to acrylic paintings. What exactly is conceptual art, and how does it apply to your recent works?

When I made “An Oak Tree,” it was an absolute work. It was so absolute that I found it impossible to continue the same way because every work I made was less absolute. So I decided that the important thing about “An Oak Tree” was that it gave me permission to do anything.

To me, the relationship between the glass water and an oak tree is not different than the relationship between a real object and an image. Both types of work are based on the very basic ideas of the nature of art — and I think that’s the same basis.

The most important thing in art is to capture the imagination of the viewers. Something amazing about the oak tree work is that it caught the imagination of many people and still has the same impact.

″Untitled (desire)″ (2008) [MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN, GAGOSIAN]

″Untitled (desire)″ (2008) [MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN, GAGOSIAN]

In your “Alphabet” series, you drew large letters or words, usually associated with another object. What’s special about this series?

I became interested when I realized that I could draw words, so I draw them the same way I draw objects. I think the words are a kind of architecture in the paintings. While the objects are always specific things, the words I use are always abstractions like “envy,” “anger,” “utopia” and “desire.” These are abstractions, for which there are no pictures or objects, so those are the ones I chose to draw. I don’t try to connect them.

″Untitled (9 panels)″ (2001) [MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN, GAGOSIAN]

″Untitled (9 panels)″ (2001) [MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN, GAGOSIAN]

What’s the ultimate message you try to convey in your works?

I never think I have a message. What I would hope for is that the works give people confidence in their own experiences and they trust their own experiences of the world. I don’t tell them what to think; that’s why I was trying to explain that I give very little information about my work. I give 10 percent and the viewer gets 90 percent.

“Here and Now” continues until Aug. 28. The Hangaram Art Museum, which is inside the Seoul Arts Center, is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 7 pm Tickets are 20,000 won ($15) for adults.


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