‘I like to make images of things that are as familiar to people as possible. These are the things that really make up our world; they’re often so ubiquitous that we think of them as rather low on the horizon of importance. But I think these things are very rich and complex in their associations.
When I make a sculpture like the shoe or the spade, I’m only giving you the outline – I’m not giving you a lot. I’m not saying how big it is – the scale is wrong, the materials are wrong, it’s not three-dimensional. The only reason you recognise them at all is because you know a lot about the object when you come to it. You may have good associations, or not; you may feel interest, or not. So it allows for exactly the same kind of slippage and interest and caring as I would expect people to have about the actual things themselves.’ 1
In 1974, Michael Craig-Martin made a series of outline drawings of an open book as preparation for a neon artwork for Margate public library. This led him to investigate the notion of ‘picturing’ objects and he began to build up a collection of line drawings of everyday objects, in which all but the most essential identifying characteristics were removed. In this way, he considered that a single image might come to stand for the object and could be used over and over again. The only rule Craig-Martin gave himself was that the drawings should be of things he owned.
Craig-Martin’s first used his new images in a series of wall drawings, made in black tape applied directly onto the gallery wall. In his solo exhibition at the Rowan Gallery, London in 1978, these took the form of three or four apparently unrelated objects placed one on top of another, with no regard for relative scale, see for example Glasses, Book, Ironing Board, Table and Hammer, Sandle, Sardine Tin. Craig-Martin later explained, ‘In my wall drawings I wanted to focus as much as possible on the fact of two-dimensional representation, with as little personal inflection involved as possible. This was my way of trying to find an alternative to photography, as sort of neutral, impersonal drawn representationalism. I wanted the viewer to see the picture not me […] The drawings I made with this technique attempted to reflect the character of the objects they represented, to act as a kind of pictorial readymade.’ 2
Having subsequently developed these wall drawings into larger and more complex arrangements using red and black tape, between 1984 and 1988 Craig-Martin worked on a small series of wall sculptures in painted steel which projected a few centimetres off the wall. This was a small formal leap from the wall drawings in tape which already gave the impression they were floating in space. Craig-Martin added flat strips of colour to some of the sculptures, a nod to Fernand Léger whose detached simplicity he admired, see for example, Private Dancer, 1984. Craig-Martin exhibited his new wall sculptures at the Waddington Galleries in 1985, declaring in the accompanying catalogue ‘They are closer to what I want to see than ever before’. 3 A second show followed at Waddington’s in 1988 and works from the two exhibitions were later brought back together for a retrospective show in 2002.
Though ostensibly deadpan in execution, there is an affection for ‘things’ which comes through in all of Craig-Martin’s work. His democratic treatment of objects suggests that anything might be beautiful if one cares to pay it enough attention. There is an undeniable elegance at play in Small Headphones, nothing is messy, absent or ill-defined, the wires are not tangled - there is only a calming formal completeness. It is interesting to note that Small Headphones was made after Private Dancer, so rather than Craig-Martin’s idea culminating in the larger and more complicated sculpture of headphones, in fact he chose to reduce both the scale and complexity of the motif to make this arguably more psychologically potent work.
Since the mid-1980s headphones have undergone many incarnations from in-the-ear buds to the current fashion for oversized wireless ‘cans’. These relatively modest headphones from 1988, designed to accompany a Sony Walkman, would be hard to find these days except perhaps in a rarely opened drawer or tucked away in a loft. The Walkman itself is a very particular cultural artefact. Invented in 1979, the Walkman was not just a new gadget - it offered consumers a completely new way of being in the world. As revolutionary as the mobile phone which followed, we now had the ability to listen to whatever we liked while on the move, to insulate ourselves from our surroundings and curate a ‘soundtrack’ to our lives. As such the Walkman is emblematic of consumer capitalism in the 1980s, one might say that headphones are the ultimate expression of the atomisation of society and the political shift from the collective to the individual. In the culture wars of the 1980s, the Walkman was a co-optable symbol of ‘Western freedom’, and as such became a highly desirable object on the black markets of countries behind the ‘iron curtain’.
Within this relatively small group of wall sculptures there is also a cello and a grand piano. These belong to a wider group of objects in Craig-Martin’s lexicon which suggest either sound or music. Whether it be an electric drill, or gun, an audio cassette, metronome or musical instrument, we are invited to fill in the associated sounds, these noises somehow more palpable through their absence. As in Craig-Martin’s original book drawings, presenting an object which plays music opens up the possibility that this could be any piece of music in the world, and as such the narrative of works like Small Headphones are imagined and completed by the viewer.
While Craig-Martin might have originally set out to create a defining image for each object - book, pen, shoe – in fact, over time, he has had to revise and update some of his apparently ‘generic’ objects as fashion and technology moves on. Even one his most iconic images, the soon to be extinct tungsten lightbulb, has had to be updated to a spiral LED version. Craig-Martin’s initial instinct for neutrality has been disrupted by the sense of time passing now present when looking back at his older work. It is indicative of our rapidly changing technology that nostalgia is now sped up to incorporate objects made only a few years ago. Craig-Martin acknowledges this new and perhaps inadvertent aspect of his work in the recent series of prints Then and Now, 2017, which present old and new versions of the same objects overlapping, as they do in the original tape drawings. Craig-Martin’s statement above about ‘wanting the viewer to see the picture not me’ is also destabilised by this notion of obsolescence. The presence of audio cassettes and VHS tapes, fixes the artist to a particular time as definitively as a black and white photograph. Equally, the presence of the latest technologies in his recent work reflects Craig-Martin’s own economic trajectory from struggling to internationally known artist, who can now treat himself to an Apple watch.
After 1988, Craig-Martin moved into painting and to paintings as installation, the most extreme example being his 50 metre mural for the São Paulo Bienal in 1998. Just as Bridget Riley has chosen to work within abstraction in order to experiment more freely, Craig-Martin has limited his motifs in order to create more complex conversations about art and representation, colour and scale. With the mess of real life removed, his random combinations of objects are open to our own interpretation, he explains, ‘People love representations of things. The things they recognise are the things that relate to them. I assume in the mix of images there are some that will affect everybody’. 4 Craig-Martin returned to sculpture in 2008, making free-standing metal versions of his drawings, typically 2 to 3 metres in height and painted in bright and sometimes fluorescent colour. Placed outdoors, these ‘transparent’ drawings have a dreamy, illusory presence, as if floating over the surrounding environment.
In 1999, Craig-Martin added to his visual dictionary, a number of objects lifted from art history (Duchamp’s urinal, Jasper Johns’ ale cans) firstly for the series titled Common History. These works added a new layer of complexity to his ‘paintings about painting’. After 2001, Craig-Martin’s eye turned more consciously to branded goods. The painting, Apple 17“ PowerBook G4, 2003, clearly demonstrates that we do not need to see the Apple logo itself to identify the contours of Apple’s highly desirable laptop. In these accelerated times, it’s likely that before the paint was dry on this painting, and certainly by the time it was exhibited in a gallery, a newer, better version of this laptop was on its way to the market. Craig-Martin seems to understand that as new technologies are superseded, so too is our need to acquire them. As such, a certain pathos for objects pervades these later images. Here, in Small Headphones, our desire for the object has long since passed - what remains is an image of desire itself.
1. The artist quoted in Mick Brown, ‘What is Michael Craig-Martin, the godfather of Brit Art doing at Chatsworth House?’, Telegraph newspaper, 14 March 2014 2.Michael Craig-Martin, On Being an Artist, Art/Books, London, 2015, p168 3. Michael Craig-Martin, exh. cat, Waddington Gallery, London, 1985, p2 4. Sao Paolo exh cat, British Council, 1998, unpaginated
Waddington Galleries, London Private Collection Marvin Ross Friedman & Co., Miami Private Collection, USA
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