Responding to today

Michael Craig-Martin shares his pandemic artworks with Hans Ulrich Obrist and reflects on the times
Art | 14 February 2022

‘Untitled (mask 2)’, 2020

Everyday objects that surround us are afforded a permanence by Michael Craig-Martin, who utilises our collective experience of physical things to reflect back to us the world we inhabit. The pandemic thrust masks and sanitiser into this shared lexicon, naturally Craig-Martin drew them. People he thought were doing a good job at handling Covid? He drew them, too. In his show at Reflex gallery, Amsterdam, these innocuous items quietly counter the gravity of global disease, continuing Craig-Martin’s lifelong fascination with the dialogue between language and the physical.

‘Zoom’, 2020

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Hi Michael, how are you?
Michael Craig-Martin: I am very well, I haven’t seen you for a long time!

HUO: Yes, I’m missing you – this Covid period has made it impossible to meet, but I’m happy we can do this interview and then hopefully see each other again soon in real life. Where are you?
MCM: I’m in London, but I’m going to Amsterdam on Friday.

HUO: What takes you to Amsterdam?
MCM: I have an exhibition at the Reflex Gallery.

HUO: What are you going to show?
MCM: It’s all paintings, quite a few actually – maybe twenty.

HUO: Can you tell me about them? Obviously, I would usually come to your studio… But now I can’t, so I would love to hear what I’ve missed. [both laugh]
MCM: They are paintings I’ve done over the last year or two, so a lot of it has been during Covid. My main aim during this period was to try and keep continuity and not to be thrown completely off by it. Of course, as it went on, there were images of objects that related to the pandemic, the most obvious one being the face mask; I drew the things that were relevant. It’s interesting there have always been those masks for medical reasons, but I never thought to draw one until now. But then it became the most important object in the world, that we all knew so naturally, so I drew it. I assume in a few years from now we won’t all be wearing masks – when we see a mask we will remember these times.

HUO: So you created a lasting image; an image for the future of this moment.
MCM: Yes, I also drew the bottles of hand gel. Suddenly they seemed so important, along with masks and also, frankly, laptops because there’s so much communication via the internet, it has never been more important.

HUO: Did you also write during the lockdown? Obviously writing plays an important role in your work, and there is this wonderful book on your collected writings.
MCM: Well to be honest, if I’m going to write about this time I’m going to write about it later. But because there was no direct personal communication, I found I was constantly writing to people, the emails were just endless, I’ve never written so much. I also started to use the telephone more again. But you must’ve been writing a lot?

Portrait Drawing: Professor Chris Whitty, 2020, and, Portrait Drawing: Dr Anthony Fauci, 2020

Portrait Drawing: Doctor Li Wenliang, first doctor to warn of new virus in wuhan, initially reprimanded, later praised in China. Died of Covid in February 220 aged 33, 2020, and, Angela Merkel, 2020

HUO: I’ve been trying to write an autobiography but I’m not sure if I’m going to get it done. [laughs]
MCM: Are you? You must do that! It would be fascinating.

HUO:The other thing I’ve been observing is that a lot of artists have been drawing during the lockdown. I was wondering if you’ve also been drawing?
MCM: I did a lot. I found the first lockdown really quite interesting because I’m used to working on my own, that’s what artists do – you spend most of your time working alone – so there was no change for me. But there were very few distractions so I found I had more time to work. I drew portraits of many of the primary figures involved in that period, I thought it was important to do work during the time of the pandemic rather than in retrospect.

HUO: Who were the primary figures for you during that time?
MCM: I mean, Chris Whitty [laughs]. I also drew a nurse, I drew the Chinese doctor who was the first one to identify Covid and then the very young Chinese doctor who died, and people who I thought were handling it well. I did a drawing of Angela Merkel because I thought she handled it well in Germany. Some people handled it better in the beginning, and it was interesting how much these people came to dominate our picture of the world and of how we were doing in relation to others. Except for Chris Whitty, I had no other English people. [laughs]

HUO: He was like the UK’s version of Dr Fauci in the United States. Did you do Dr Fauci?
MCM: Of course.

HUO: So these are portraits of people during that time, and these are not paintings but drawings. Are they pencil or ink?
MCM: Just drawings, my usual tape drawings. Well… that’s not actually true, I have transferred some of them but they’re drawn on the computer with the mouse like I always draw.

HUO: It’s a portrait gallery of the Covid period.
MCM: Covid portraits!

HUO: It would be a book I suppose.
MCM: Yes. One of the people was [Andrew] Cuomo [former Governor of New York] who was a hero at the beginning of the pandemic, and then of course became a figure of real dislike and hatred because of his personal behaviour later on. It’s interesting to watch people’s positions change in the world.

‘Commissioned Portrait Untitled (Zaha)’, 2008

HUO: How many people are in this Michael Craig-Martin Covid portrait gallery?
MCM: I suppose there’s about ten. I mean, it was a funny thing to do, draw portraits of these people, but it seemed important at the time.

HUO:Especially because the people you paint are people you value. It’s not only during Covid, you’ve also drawn portraits of friends, I remember very vividly a conversation with Zaha Hadid who initially was quite concerned about her portrait! And then she embraced it. [both laugh]
MCM: I’m not sure how completely she embraced it… Zaha was never going to be an easy person to draw a portrait of, but she was such an extraordinary person. I really miss her, I think she was so interesting and important.

HUO: I miss her too, not only the drawings she would make and her visions for the city, but also as a friend; I miss her humour, I remember so many stories.
MCM: She was incredibly funny, she did great imitations of people, she had a sense of humour that her public persona would have never led you to expect. It was fun to be with her because she was so amusing.

“When I draw these images I’m calling upon all of that information that’s social and also personal, some people have very strong personal attachments to certain objects and not others…”

HUO: Once her and I were invited to some sort of cultural leaders gathering at Chequers, and she was supposed to sit next to the Prime Minister at that lunch. There were a few museum directors and everyone was really worried because Zaha wasn’t there. Julia Peyton-Jones and I called her mobile and she was really agitated, she said, “I’m sitting alone here!” There was a misunderstanding and she’d gone to some restaurant in London called The Chequers.
MCM: No! [laughs] The first time I met her was at a dinner party and we were sitting next to each other. We immediately got on very well we talked all through dinner. When we were leaving I said, “Zaha, I have my car here would you like me to give you a lift home?” And she said “No, I have my car here, too.” We went in the lift together and came out at the entrance of the apartment building and her car was waiting for her – it was a chauffeur-driven Smart car. [laughs] This tiny car with two doors, and the chauffeur got out and opened the door for her and she got in. I thought, “That’s the most stylish person I’ve ever met, anybody who has a Smart car is okay in my book.”

‘Untitled (bananas)’, 2019

HUO: So, you did portraits of objects during Covid and you did a portrait gallery of people, but I want to come back to the portraits of objects. You once told me when we worked on the Serpentine show [Transience, 2016] that you thought objects we value least, because they are ubiquitous, are actually the most extraordinary. In many ways during the lockdown, hand sanitisers and masks have become literally the most ubiquitous objects on the planet. How do you choose an object?
MCM: First of all, the most important thing to me is familiarity. I’ve come to realise that if you see an object for the first time and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, you don’t really know what to make of it and you can’t show an image of it to other people because they won’t understand. So in order to understand my work, everybody has to know what it is – if I draw a book they have to know what a book is. What’s interesting is how many objects people share in their memory bank of knowledge, everybody knows what these things look like and what they’re for. When I draw these images I’m calling upon all of that information that’s social and also personal, some people have very strong personal attachments to certain objects and not others, whereas some, like the mask, have such an enormous social implication now that it didn’t have two years ago. None of it is stable. When we did the exhibition at the Serpentine about the changes over time, the way the tape cassette had become almost unintelligible to young people because they’d never seen one… and now tape cassettes are fashionable again, people are getting interested and will recognise them again.

HUO: Have there been objects you’ve always wanted to paint or draw and haven’t yet?
MCM: There are a few, I’m slightly limited by the way in which draw. I draw in a very specific way with the uninflected line – a line that is essentially either designed to be a tape or that is a tape. So there are certain objects, for instance I’ve never felt able to draw a comb or a hairbrush because there’re too many parallel lines, it’s really a technical reason for not being able to draw rather than a psychological reason. For a comb I’d have to draw line after line after line for all of the teeth, I just think it would look ridiculous. Every drawing involves leaving out information, but I don’t want them to look cartoonish, I want them to look like proper images. There’s almost nothing that I want to draw that I haven’t. During the lockdown I also drew fruit and vegetables which I had never done before, that was because the only shop you could go to was the supermarket. I suddenly realised how we have domesticated all these things that we consider to be fresh, they are actually virtually fabricated for us; the apples are perfect, exactly the way we like them, we’ve domesticated fruit and vegetables to make them palatable.

HUO: It’s interesting that you have never painted a comb. Many years ago I invited Alain Robbe-Grillet, the pioneer of the Nouveau Roman, to do a talk with [James] Rosenquist and myself to honour Robert Rauschenberg, while he was still alive in the States. We were staying in this hotel, and I received an envelope, a letter from room-to-room. Robbe-Grillet, for mysterious reasons, had sent me a drawing – sometimes in hotel rooms you get a free comb as part of the sanitary set – he had opened that comb and drawn the contour on hotel paper and sent it over to my room. It’s interesting in relation to the Nouveau Roman, as the novels were so focused on objects, and Robbe-Grillet once said objects were viewed purely as they were, and as nothing else. Was the Nouveau Roman something that was important for you in the 60s and 70s?
MCM: Yes, it’s very interesting you say that, because that very matter-of-fact approach to things, that idea of looking at something in a very straightforward way, was part of my youth, part of my time as a young student, and it formed my idea of how one looks at the world. That’s a perfect example of that through the Nouveau Roman.

‘Fountain Pen’, 2019

HUO: When we showed your work at the Serpentine, we also showed your sculptur outdoors. Your sculpture is slightly less well- known than your painting, I wanted to also ask you if you’ve done any new sculptures? You told me that you came to painting through sculpture, and you came to images through objects. You also told me once that the images are located somewhere in the middle between objects and words, so I wanted to ask you to explain that and then maybe tell us a little bit about your own sculptures.
MCM: In a way, the sculptures are a realisation of a dream of an idea. The thing that interests me is not just the objects themselves, but the idea of turning them into images, and what happens when you take something and turn it into language – because images are a form of language. There are things you can do in language that you can’t do with the objects themselves. The whole realm of two-dimensional imagery came to fascinate me, and the thing about my sculptures that pleases me is that they are not, in a true sense, ‘sculptural’, they’re not three-dimensional in the usual way. Although they’re physical and they stand up, they’re actually sculptures of drawings of objects. And drawings are flat. So if I do a drawing of a pair of headphones or a fork, you’re looking at something that’s two-dimensional, it doesn’t really look like that object at all, but because it’s a drawing you read it that way. The sculptures are like drawings that are free-standing and the idea that a two-dimensional drawing can stand on its own without a background, without a surface – it just floats – seems to me to be something very special.

HUO: As you know I have a movement on my Instagram which is a protest against the disappearance of handwriting, something we started with the late Umberto Eco and my friend the poet Etel Adnan. It’s interesting that the fountain pen is the tool for handwriting, but also a symbol – I was amazed to see images of one of your biggest sculptures so far, a five-metre high fountain pen which was installed quite recently at Oxford University. You told The Art Newspaper that this fountain pen is your most daring of all sculptures.
MCM: It was a wonderful commission to do a public sculpture in Oxford outside the Blavatnik School of Government. It was a question of trying to find an image that was appropriate to the situation, and I decided on the fountain pen. The thing about the fountain pen that’s different from all the other sculptures is that it balances on its own nib. It stands on a point, which makes it physically daring and exciting to look at, it’s like a ballet dancer standing on one toe. It was a challenge to make such a sculpture as a public work, and I like the idea that the sculpture has a resonance with writing and learning, the school is directly across the street from the University Press. Everybody knows what a fountain pen is, I make the kind of work that children love because they recognise the images, so I hope local children will find the fountain pen just as exciting as the students in the university.

HUO: There is something very current about it, it’s still used often to sign historic documents, but at the same time it’s old-fashioned.
MCM: Yes, I really like that idea, there are only very few objects which are similar across time and one of them is the fountain pen. A nineteenth-century fountain pen looks almost exactly the same as a fountain pen you could buy today. People don’t use them as much as they used to, but they certainly still use them. Another similar object is the umbrella, a nineteenth-century umbrella looks like an umbrella does today, more or less. Musical instruments are even more extraordinary. If you take the violin, the cello, the french horn, the tuba… instruments have looked the same for centuries. Very few objects do.

“People used to say that Samuel Beckett’s vision of the world, and of mankind, was very depressing, but I never saw him as anything other than supremely positive, because the very act of making, the very act of creating, is an aspect of hope and positivity, isn’t it?”

HUO: This piece was installed just before the university finally opened again, and you have been so incredibly, important for generations of artists in school through your teaching. When I was in Basel last weekend I had a long conversation with Daniel Buren.

In the 80s we spoke in Paris at Institute des Hautes Études, where they would invite a small number of postgraduate students. Philippe Parreno came out of that and Absalon, Chen Zhen and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. I always wanted to know the secret of that school, and they explained to me that it had a lot to do with the fact they would just invite people who came through Paris… Michael Asher but also philosophers like [Jean-François] Lyotard, all these great artists, thinkers and architects – they would invite them to spend the day with the students. Daniel Buren said he never did studio visits with the students, instead he asked them to present their work exactly like the well- known, experienced visiting artists would. So the students had to make presentations.

I want to know more about this miraculous teaching of yours which has produced more well-known artists than any other teacher or professor in the UK. What is your secret? Are there any rules of the game or your methodology?
MCM: The most important thing to understand about teaching art is that you can’t teach art. It’s not a subject, art history is a subject but art is not. What a student really learns in art education is about themselves, you are really the subject and you use the making of things, your imagination and also the necessity of taking responsibility for what you do. If somebody gives you a project in art, to me that’s not art. If every individual takes responsibility and does something, no matter what you do, you’re in the realm of art, because you’re fully responsible.

People sometimes think that artists are irresponsible, when in fact they have to be the most responsible, because they’re responsible for exactly what they do. Students need to be able to gain a certain level of self-confidence to be able to put forward what they think is important, but also you need to know yourself, you need to know who you are and that self needs to be reflected in what you do. I became very good at helping people recognise themselves in what they were doing, or recognising that they weren’t in what they were doing, which was an indication they were doing the wrong thing. I don’t know if that makes sense.

‘Lockdown painting (black)’, 2020

HUO: I think that’s a fantastic answer. Dan Graham said we can only understand visual arts if we understand how it connects to architecture, science, music… in Oxford of course there is the architecture of the Blavatnik School, which was built by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Could you tell us a bit more about this dialogue you have with architecture?
MCM: The Blavatnik School commission was extraordinary for me, because I have worked on two other buildings with Herzog & de Meuron, one was Tate Modern and the other was the Laban Dance Centre in London. I admire them enormously, and for me it was like doing a third collaboration, because I tried to work in sympathy with the building in Oxford. I find it very interesting to work with architects, and I like working with different kinds of architectural spaces from an artist’s point of view. No matter how big a work of art is, it’s small in comparison to a building.

HUO: As you know I’m always really interested in unrealised projects. We know about unrealised projects of architects because they publish them, but we don’t know much about those of artists. There are a range of reasons why projects are unrealised, they can be too big or too time-intensive. [György] Ligeti was in his 70s when I met him, he told me he had another fifty years of music to write, a lot of ideas for operas and he just didn’t have the time, particularly with composing, it’s a very slow process. There are also the utopian projects which are difficult to realise, then there are the partially-realised projects, and those that everyone has forgotten in the studio or in a locker, and I would say censorship sometimes is a reason. Doris Lessing always told me there are the projects we haven’t dared to do, she calls that self-censorship. So, in that wide range of the unrealised, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about one or two of your unrealised projects, maybe in relation to architecture but also elsewhere?
MCM: I have to say, in the back of my head all the time is the idea that I would like to make a big, tall building, entirely of images. The whole structure would be made of an assembly of drawings of images. The reason it has not been realised, as you can imagine, is that it’s a very hard thing to do! [laughs]

HUO: But you would be the architect, the images would constitute the architecture.
MCM: Yes, it would be an attempt to reverse the role of the architect and the artist in a collaboration. The architect always has a certain control because when you’re an artist working with an architect you’re doing something to their building, and I would like to be the one who’s in charge – I’m designing the building and the architect has to help me realise it.

HUO: I love that idea. Gerhard Richter would always say he thinks art is the highest form of hope, an idea which I think is very relevant to the last eighteen months, because I think we realised how much we need hope. We also realised how much we need art, because we couldn’t see it in the flesh, we could only see it on screens. I would love to hear your definition of what art is for you.
MCM: What Richter said is beautiful, and I think he’s absolutely correct. I always have seen art as fundamentally positive, I see that in all the arts. People used to say that Samuel Beckett’s vision of the world, and of mankind, was very depressing, but I never saw him as anything other than supremely positive, because the very act of making, the very act of creating, is an aspect of hope and positivity, isn’t it?

Interview originally published in The HERO Winter Annual 2021. 

Read Next