Issue Number: 111
For Michael Craig-Martin RA, often dubbed the godfather of the YBAs, hanging a gallery in the Summer Exhibition offers a chance to challenge expectations of what the Academy is all about, writes Matthew Collings
If you heard Michael Craig-Martin was selecting a special room of his own invited artists to feature in this year’s Summer Exhibition, the first question you might ask is why does he like the things he likes? I tried this on a visit to his north London studio, last April, but he wouldn’t answer. At least, not immediately, and the reason is that his selection has an aim which wouldn’t be served by singling out the qualities of individual works. It is to show how the RA has changed.
Inviting a Royal Academician to arrange this show-within-a-show is a tradition that has been going for a few years. ‘It offers them the chance to bring in outsiders. It’s seen as an opportunity. So I’m bringing together some much younger artists and a few oldsters like myself. But the difference is that every one of them is actually an RA.’ You have to remember that the RAs in his selection were elected in the first place by other RAs: proof that the institutional evolution Craig-Martin supports is a reality.
Craig-Martin has been an RA for almost five years. He understands criticism of the Summer Show. ‘It has its in-built problem of being this amazing open house, where thousands of things are expected to go together on the walls, by professionals and amateurs, and by RAs.’ For some older RAs the Summer Show is their only public forum, and in the past this has made them very brittle about change. But Craig-Martin is convinced that an ‘entrenched conservatism’ that used to exist among the membership is now easing.
Evolution was slow. ‘Artists older than myself – Hamilton, Hodgkin, Riley – stay away from the place because of its former reputation as a bastion of anti-modernism. They associate it with that story of the old President, Sir Alfred Munnings, saying he’d give Picasso a kick up the arse if he saw him in the street.’ That characterisation goes with criticism that the Summer Shows are out of touch with art.
Now it’s speeding up. The next generation down from Craig-Martin knew the RA over the last 20 years when Norman Rosenthal put on fabulous international exhibitions there as part of the institution’s main programme. They see the place not as hokey and oblivious but glamorous. How do you streamline the Summer Show, get it to make aesthetic sense, while retaining its democratic basis and its uniquely fascinating sense of a historically continuous spectacle? The statement of Craig-Martin’s selection is that while the Summer Show still has its trademark inclusiveness, with inspired organisers – Christopher Le Brun RA this year – increasing the visual elegance and cutting down on visual chaos, it also offers a real indicator of what the art world is up to now.
Craig-Martin is both careful and relaxed about his selection. The size limit he imposed for individual works of art in his space in the Summer Show is no more than a couple of metres in any direction: ‘More or less body-size’. Plus, it must be a signature piece. ‘So you know that’s a Lisa Milroy, that’s a Jenny Saville, that’s a Richard Deacon…’ But he is open to whatever the artist proposes. He trusts their instincts as well as his own. I remind him of his sinister reputation as inventor, during his teaching career at Goldsmiths College, of a whole generation of iconoclasts, the YBAs, or Young British Artists, who are supposed to have ushered in the end of traditional forms such as painting on canvas in favour of conceptual high jinx.
‘I’ve always believed one of the greatest things about art is its diversity,’ he says. ‘Goldsmiths was about doing away with separate departments’ – the department of painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography or whatever – ‘not doing away with painting or anything else. In fact, there were always at least 50 per cent painters there.’ This is roughly the same percentage as his Summer Exhibition selection; the rest of the artists are either sculptors or working in sculpture fall-out mediums such as photography or film.
Most visitors to the Summer Show find it straightforwardly exciting. If there is a great mass of work, it is hung in a beautiful environment, and with what seems like care. They don’t worry about in-crowd issues. And for the exhibitors, if you’re not an RA, the experience tends to be positive. Last year I had my own Summer Show debut.
I paint in collaboration with a partner, Emma Biggs. Far from being horrified by jumble, conservatism or Royal Academician hegemony, our joint feeling was that it was great to be shown in a sympathetically large room alongside well known names like Craig-Martin himself, Grayson Perry RA, Sean Scully and others. Our work was seen by literally hundreds of thousands of people. And on the opening day it sold for a sum that would have enabled each of us – when we were students in the 1970s on government grants – to live for 16 years. We paid 30 per cent of the sale price to the RA, which is of course 20 per cent less than most galleries would take.
Craig-Martin is very keen on the selling aspect of the Summer Show, because it links to matters of literally vital importance. ‘The RA receives no public money,’ he explains. ‘It survives in part because of the Summer Show.’ The RA Schools also benefit from these sales. ‘This is the only art school in England where the students don’t pay fees. It’s always been free, because it’s an independent institution. Being private, it can be one of the livelier schools, and it’s free of the problems that have damaged many other British art schools: it doesn’t need to keep increasing the number of students or having too great an intake of foreign students merely to make up the fees.’
I think the same gifts Craig-Martin has for sensing what is genuinely fresh about an established artist’s work, operate in his work as a teacher (he’s actually been out of teaching for a while now, and is happy to spend all his time in the studio). I can testify that he’s a helpful person to have a tutorial with. I did the MA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College 20 years ago (having initially studied painting at art school in the 1970s for four years).
There were two or three paintings in my studio. I couldn’t see that each one was merely a confusion of several half-hearted beginnings. What was helpful to me was that he said you needed an idea for a painting. It certainly sounds reasonable! But you can get into weird twists in the studio. One thing he’s really good at, I think – well it’s two things – is not only seeing that the situation is twisted, but having an instinct for positive solutions. Artists are often closed in about other artists’ work. He is the opposite. He is a live wire at understanding and appreciating art, seeing what’s there, how it’s made, what’s gone into it, what the forms are, why the idea works.
With Craig-Martin’s selection of works this year in the Summer Show, by 25 sharply distinct figures, ranging from chin-stroking conceptualists (Tacita Dean) to charming painters (Humphrey Ocean), from angry mavericks (Michael Sandle) to popular pet rebels (Tracey Emin), he is both shining a light on the RA’s newly evolving personality, and foregrounding his own uniquely generous and democratic tendencies.
In his early years as an artist he discovered there were others whose work he liked but whose interests and values contradicted his own. ‘This was a critical lesson: admiring something and liking it are not the same. There are some great works of art I admire but do not like. There are some obviously minor works I love.’
He learned over many years of teaching to recognize when a student had discovered or developed an authentic and natural relationship with his or her work. ‘People rarely value properly the things that come most naturally to them because they think they’re too easy to be important. They fail to recognize that what is easy to one person may be impossible to others. If a student learns how to be true to him or herself then good work will follow. I never wanted the students to make work like mine. I wanted to help them discover what was best for themselves, just as I’d done.’
Because he can see the value in many types of art, it doesn’t mean he’s a pushover. He can be extremely critical. ‘I find a lot of art to be derivative, shallow, worthy but empty, boring.’ To return to the question of what it is he values in the work he is positive about, the answer, when it comes, is serious and thoughtful. ‘As I think anyone looking at the work I have chosen for the room will see, the art I care about always reveals the true, distinct, and singular voice of an individual artist.’