Re:Definition of an Artist

Godfather of British contemporary art leaves indelible mark on Dallas

Godfather of British contemporary art leaves indelible mark on Dallas

Michael Craig-Martin
Michael Craig-Martin is the artist honoree at the 2015 MTV RE:DEFINE. Photo © Caroline True
Michael Craig-Martin
A work from Michael Craig-Martin. Photo by Mike Bruce/Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
Michael Craig-Martin
A work from Michael Craig-Martin. Photo by Mike Bruce/Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
Michael Craig-Martin
Michael Craig-Martin
Michael Craig-Martin

On April 10, at Goss Michael Foundation’s MTV RE:DEFINE, Michael Craig-Martin will bask in a lifetime’s worth of accolades. Not just from a room full of art world heavy-hitters, but via a tribute film featuring many of the Young British Artists he nurtured in his time as a teacher at Goldsmiths.

“The time felt right to honor him in a little different way,” says the foundation’s Kenny Goss. “Looking at my collection, I knew that many of the artists that I’ve been interested in, such as Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and local star Richard Patterson, had at one time studied with him.

“It takes a special artist to be a good teacher, and Michael is truly a wonderful person. His ideas are complex; he’s a thinker. But he’s real, and the art world absolutely adores him.”

 Craig-Michael’s career is a testament to never giving up, never saying no and always being excited about what’s around the next corner.

As much as it may feel like a lifetime achievement award, at 73, the Dublin-born artist, teacher and curator is just getting started. He recently spent a week lecturing at Harvard; he just wrapped up a Chinese exhibition of 50 paintings in Shanghai (set to travel on to Wuhan); and he is the principal curator of the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition, the largest open submission exhibition in the world.

“I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment,” he laughs. “When things were very slow in my career, I decided I should say yes to everything. So anything I was asked — even if it was ridiculous — I would say yes, and that turned out to be a very good idea.

“Something you don’t think is going to be very promising, you can get an idea or meet somebody and come away with something new. You can’t always tell when something’s going to be important.”

This philosophy has served him well, but then again, Craig-Martin does have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. As a graduate student at Yale, he shared classes with the likes of Richard Serra, Brice Marden and Chuck Close. A post-BFA and MBA move to London landed him squarely in the middle of a cultural zeitgeist, and his early embrace of conceptualism foreshadowed the model of art as theater.

And then there are the YBAs. While teaching at Goldsmiths in the 1980s, Craig-Martin’s students were a collective that he says he knew were once-in-a-lifetime talents.

“I did have a sense that, first of all, I had more talented and interesting students than usual, and they were all conscious of each other,” he says. “There was a chemistry developing between them, and when they went out in the art world, they took that mutual support with them.

“I use the word ‘chemistry,’ because it’s not something that you could decide to happen. It’s something about the timing and the nature of people involved, and those things happen occasionally.”

But being able to recognize such chemistry is a talent in itself, as is the ability to glean what’s truly important in life. Erudite without being extraordinary organized, Craig-Martin’s “scraps of paper, articles and notes for teaching” were recently turned into On Being An Artist, an inspiring blend of memoir and instructional guide out this month from the UK publisher Art/Books.

“There was a youngish publisher who I had worked with who started his own publishing firm, and I gave him everything. I’d written much more than I ever realized, but never in any planned way.

“He took everything, and his editing was really brilliant. You could read it from beginning to end, or you could start in the middle.”

Focusing on the ups and downs of life and the story of a life, On Being An Artist is inspiring even for those who have zero intention of picking up a paintbrush. A self-professed “slow burner,” Craig-Michael’s own career is a testament to never giving up, never saying no and always being excited about what’s around the next corner.

“I’ve had a very interesting life, and a life that’s had many contrasts,” he says. “Obviously I’ve been a very persistent person. Life is difficult, but if life has reversals and difficulties, it’s not a reason to give up. Things tend to change.”

With his history of being at the forefront of so many movements, we can only hope Craig-Martin’s impact on our city bodes well for Dallas’ own creative future. At the suggestion of Kenny Goss, he has adorned Dallas with 10 murals (and one sculpture) of his beloved ordinary objects illuminated in neon hues, including a high-heeled shoe, handcuffs, a violin and a single pill, on sites such as the Dallas Museum of Art, Le Bilboquet, The Joule and the Nasher Sculpture Center.

Although we’ve been graced by the work of street art stars before, these murals — which will remain until the end of August — feel like an official stamp of approval from an art world luminary. 

That stamp and On Being An Artist assures us that everyone indeed has their own artistic spark — an encouragement we need to recall long after Dallas Arts Week is over.