Issue Number: 95
Over lunch at a restaurant he designed, the new RA Michael Craig-Martin tells Sarah Greenberg about how his career has taken off since turning 60
Michael Craig-Martin RA in St Alban Photograph by Julian Anderson
Michael Craig-Martin RA used to be famous for making other artists famous. He inspired Damien Hirst, Gary Hume RA and Fiona Rae RA and the ‘Sensation’ generation of YBAs, who studied with him at Goldsmiths College in the early 1990s, with his theory of Neo-Conceptualism – the idea that a work of art can be anything, from a pickled shark to a painting.
Now the 65-year-old artist has thrown in teaching and works long hours in his studio to keep up with the increasing international demand for his art: ‘I stopped teaching completely about seven years ago. But I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t kept doing my own work when it was diffi cult to do so.’
It has taken him decades to evolve his deceptively simple graphic style, epitomized by his design for the cover of this magazine and for the new St Alban restaurant near the RA where we are lunching.
His ability to reinvent generic objects – from light bulbs to wineglasses – by playing with their form, colour and scale is a contemporary take on the still life that can adapt to fi t all manner of architectural, commercial and artistic briefs.
He works out intricate patterns of objects on Apple Mac computers: ‘I’ve owned one since the early Nineties. I keep a dictionary of images on it, then I pull certain ones out, make a pile of them and arrange them to find certain rhythms that appeal to me, for example by placing a complex object next to a simple one – a grand piano next to a wineglass. You can create designs on a scale that wouldn’t be possible by hand.’
Craig-Martin came of age in the US in the Fifties, the son of an Irish economist who moved to Washington DC in 1945. He developed his love of art at Catholic schools and at museums such as the Phillips Collection where he was awed by the Rothkos, later attending Yale School of Art.
When he came to England in 1966, because he was offered a teaching post at the Bath Academy of Art, he was steeped in American pop culture and modernism.
‘The Britain I came to has disappeared, virtually without a trace. New York looks essentially the same as it did 40 years ago. But London has changed totally.
‘It used to look grand but shabby, an elegant facade hiding a nightmare of seedy bedsits. That’s changed, as has the way that people behave. British people did not go out to eat in the way they do now. They were modest, quiet and self-effacing and now they’re often loud, vulgar and brash. Americans have always been loud, vulgar and brash, but not the British, so it’s a bigger change here and it affects everything.
‘A lot of it has to do with money. In America people had “funny money” – enough money to make choices about what to buy and what to do. Britain has now become a country that’s full of “funny money”. That’s what fuels this new society of restaurants, fancy clothes and going out. It didn’t exist before.’
Proof of his statement surrounds us in the uncompromisingly modern, upscale – and full – St Alban. The latest creation of Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, who made the Ivy famous and now own The Wolseley, it has none of the nostalgic ambience or comfort food of those established eateries. Instead, it looks of the moment, as does Craig-Martin’s design, which makes diners feel as though they are inside one of his paintings.
Although Craig-Martin’s art pervades every element of the space, from the walls and windows printed with his designs to the furniture and carpets that echo it, the effect is not overpowering.
‘If you’re sitting in a restaurant, I don’t want to bombard you with my art. Here I tried to create impact with the scale of the images and to add touches of colour in the lines, rather than painting the walls bright colours, as I would do in an exhibition. I think of it as a drawing around the room.’
Even the menu, printed on a piece of paper so it can change daily, has been designed by Craig-Martin. The Mediterranean-inspired food is based loosely around Italian and Spanish specialities. Since Michael is a frequent customer, I have a glass of what he’s drinking – Pecorino Terre di Chieti, an unusual and well-priced Italian white from Abruzzo that tastes like white Burgundy. Then I order his favourite starter: Cornish crab with chilli-infused crushed avocado, while he tries the octopus salami.
New twists on classic dishes continue with the mains: he chooses monkfish pot roast with wild mushrooms, and I have grilled salmon with samphire and salsa verde. Puddings are exceptional: pistachio ice-cream with lemon zabaglione and roast baby pineapple.
Recently elected an RA, Craig-Martin was at first reluctant to join: ‘I belong to the anti-Munnings generation,’ he says, referring to the reactionary former President of the Academy, Alfred Munnings, who rejected Picasso and international modern art after the War.
‘Such ultra-conservatism coloured so many artists of my generation’s view of the RA that it’s been difficult to get over. But every aspect of the British art world has changed so significantly in the past fifteen years that one can’t go on addressing things as they were before – and the Academy is one of those things.’
He recognises the increasingly broad range of RAs, and the slow but steady move away from the parochialism of the past towards a more contemporary and internationally recognized membership.
‘During the 40 years I’ve lived in Britain, the Academy has always been in the process of changing. It’s now unrecognizable from what it was before. And it would be wonderful if it became again a place where artists like me naturally wished to be members.’
St Alban, 4–12 Regent Street, London SW1 (020 7499 8558); Michael Craig-Martin by Richard Cork (Thames and Hudson, £35)