In his 1964 book Understanding Media, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan noted how ‘technical change alters not only habits of life, but patterns of thought and valuation’. This notion became a lifelong source of inspiration to Michael Craig-Martin, who engaged with the book during his early stages as an artist – and on display at the Serpentine Gallery, in his first UK exhibition since 1989, his work raises questions about the ever-changing role of technology in contemporary society.
Illustrating the many technological innovations that have defined the last few decades, Craig-Martin’s art takes us on a trip down memory lane, from the present days of digital to the age of analogue. Across all of his vibrant canvases, the spotlight falls on objects ranging variously from cassette tapes and lightbulbs, wristwatches and batteries, X-boxes and iPhones. Holding up a mirror to the everyday items that once represented the cutting edge of the modern world, Craig-Martin reminds us of the fleeting and fluctuating impact of technology – or rather, as the show is appropriately entitled, its Transience, particularly within the context of our own lives.
Born in 1941, long before the onset of handsets and consoles, Craig-Martin is well placed to observe this increasing saturation of technology within society. Raised in Dublin, he received a religious education where pupils were encouraged to look at the imagery in stained glass windows, and gained an interest in art from one of the priests. He began to paint seriously while studying English Literature and History at Fordham University in New York in 1959, subsequently enrolling to study art at the Academies de la Grand Chaumiere in Paris in 1961.
Craig-Martin’s early creations consisted of line drawings of ordinary objects, creating a catalogue of images that would form the basis for his later in. It was during his turn to painting in the 90s that he developed his simplistic signature style, and anyone who wanders between paintings such as Eye of the Storm (2002) and Biding Time (2004) will be struck by the recurring uniformity of his technique: minimally drawn, with lines of uniform thickness separating large blocks of bright colour. By his own admission, this aesthetic is a crucial aspect of his art: ‘I’ve always wanted to make drawings that were absolutely style-less’, he says.
His minimalist approach is also heavily influenced by Josef Albers, whose work was preoccupied with the interaction of colours. It was during a painting course at Yale University that Craig-Martin was first introduced to Albers’ experimentation with theories on colour and form. Craig Martin admitted ‘Everything I know about colour came from that course’, and you can trace clear allusions to Albers’ Study for a Variant (1947) in Cassette (2002), and the Homage to the Square series in the purple iPhone of Untitled (2013).
There can at times be something alienating about the saturated composition of the canvases. Between Nokia phones and Adidas trainers, his lurid choice of colours might be interpreted as an attack on the consumerist values inspired by technological advance. But Craig-Martin’s agenda is plain: ‘I am just a witness to it,’ he says, ‘not a judge’.
Indeed, what Craig-Martin’s minimalist or even ‘styleless’ approach results in is a series of works where the emphasis falls on the subject of the art rather than the creative methods behind it. It’s our experience of the objects represented which gives the paintings their significance: as Craig-Martin (quite literally) highlights these technological items so boldly before us, we are forced to reflect on how they have shaped the way we consume, communicate and live. In this sense, the exhibition can verge on an immersive and meditative experience, as Craig-Martin invites us to indulge and share in his social observations.
‘When I started drawing these ordinary, everyday objects in the late 1970s,’ Craig-Martin says, ‘I thought they were pretty stable in the world. I assumed that they would not change over time. When I first drew a light build I had no idea it would become a thing of design history.’ It’s ironic that the unprecedented transience of these objects is what now constitutes the importance of these works – but Craig-Martin’s ability to uncover an unlikely graphic beauty out of today’s and yesterday’s technology makes them all the more unique.