Michael Craig-Martin

Present Tense

26.08.2016 - 05.11.2016



First thing in the morning, a coffee on the hop. An espresso from the coffee pod-machine delivers a lunch-time energy boost. Against our best diet intentions, we snack on French fries churned out by a global fast-food chain. In the evening, should the need arise, a handy pep pill will help to keep things buoyant.


An encounter with works by Michael Craig-Martin is an encounter with our own advertising-enhanced lives. Mundane objects known to all and used by most form the subject matter of his drawings and paintings: paint rollers, paper cups, training shoes – popular symbols of a certain lifestyle reduced to the bare minimum of clear contours and vibrant colour fields. Highly stylised yet easily recognisable, they are like glyphs or pictographs, an alphabet of consumer products. 


Michael Craig-Martin was born in Dublin in 1941, raised in the U.S., and educated at Yale. In the mid-nineteen-sixties, he returned to Europe where he became one of the key figures of the first generation of British conceptual artists. He was a professor at Goldsmith’s College in London from 1974–1988 and 1994–2000, teaching artists who would become known in the early nineties as the YBAs or Young British Artists.


Craig-Martin’s works are held by significant international museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and London’s Tate Gallery, and his large-scale works of public art can be admired in cities all over the world. Notably, he created Cascade, a series of murals on several apartment blocks set at right angles to Boulevard Virgile Barel in Nice, southern France, in 2007.


It was in the late 1970s that Craig-Martin began to draw and paint mass-produced quotidian objects. Commenting on his choice of subject matter, he noted some years ago, ‘I chose them because they seemed to me a true universal language in the modern world, objects so ubiquitous they had become invisible and without special value.’ Given that we tend to attribute particular eloquence and significance to outstanding designer pieces such as Marcel Breuer’s cantilever chair, or the LC2 armchair by Le Corbusier (Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand), Craig-Martin has demonstrated a  sophisticated audacity and nonchalance in elevating insignificant items to the status of period pieces.


Much as Neil MacGregor, the British art historian tells stories of the past through famous artworks and mundane objects in 'The History of the World in 100 Objects, the artist’s formulaic objects – knives, toasters, torchlights – tell stories in the Present Tense.’ Craig-Martin uses his alphabet of consumer products to give us the portrait of a society through its materialistic foundations. The artist has also created portraits, including a self-portrait, from a perspective that sees the sitter as the sum total of the objects they have used and collected: we are what we possess. 


In Craig-Martin’s contour drawings, countless mass-produced objects are reduced to the most impersonal minimum. The broad contour lines are actually the result of dark adhesive tape that, in a manner evoking an industrial production process, has been applied directly to a wall or the canvas. Showing no trace of the artist’s own hand, his acrylic paintings on canvas or aluminium feature fields of vibrant colour against a black background reminiscent of 17th-century still lifes. In his most recent works, Craig-Martin uses cool but loud and gaudy colours both for the backgrounds and the subjects. Moreover, he frequently zooms in on his subject to reveal only a section of a laptop, paper cup, or training shoe – the objects are identifiable even so.


An encounter with Michael Craig-Martin’s work is an encounter with our own close ties to small everyday objects. 


Alice Henkes



Press release (German)

'Alphabet der Waren,' Handelszeitung, Nr. 35, 1. September 2016 (German)