MTV RE:DEFINE is consistently one of the biggest showbiz events in the Dallas art world. But the 2015 celebration promises to be more formidable than ever. Michael Craig-Martin is being paid homage at this year’s iteration of the rock-and-art benefit that has raised millions of dollars in the ongoing fight against HIV/AIDS. He’s arriving in Dallas after a stint in China as well as creating new work in England. And the latter isn’t just impressive—it smacks of endless lawns, drawing rooms that Henry James would envy, and the bluest-of-blue blood.
Dublin-born and educated at Fordham and Yale, Craig-Martin is silver-haired, immaculate, and decidedly professorial. The latter description is particularly apt since a prodigious number of YBAs (Young British Artists) emerged from Goldsmiths College under his aegis and subsequently created artwork that commanded staggering price tags and frenzied international attention. His former students include Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, and Liam Gillick, all of whom credit him as a primary influence on their work. In sum, the 1980s art scene was a visually stimulating rampage that leaves even Craig-Martin bemused. In fact, he has commented that the combustible pile-up of talent at Goldsmiths was a one-off. Says he, “I tried for most of my early teaching career to have a moment like what happened with the YBAs, (but) once it had happened… I couldn’t do it again.”
He taught for 27 years, all the while turning out a prodigious array of his own groundbreaking and arresting work. While his students have garnered unfettered media attention, Craig-Martin has been anything but idle. In fact, he has been continually working in his London studio and selling high-end art to a chichi clientele for decades. However, his recent work is more luxe than a bottle of 1961 vintage Pétrus; it involves that endlessly ravishing topic for nearly everyone on the planet—royalty.
As part of a bicentenary celebration, Craig-Martin was commissioned to do a portrait of the first Duke of Wellington, the victorious commander at the Battle of Waterloo. To put this accomplishment in context, consider this: Upon his return from battle in 1815, the Duke was greeted with fawning attention that would dwarf contemporary stardom a hundred-fold. He saved Europe from the hegemony of Napoleon and, thus, ensured more than a century of prosperity and peace for the European continent. Craig-Martin sums the situation up nicely, “He was the most famous man in the world.” Moreover, his victory was made all the more salient by virtue of the fact that Bonaparte had fought (and won) more battles than Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, and Caesar—combined. Thus, to be tasked with creating a likeness of Wellington is almost impossibly grand, a situation ideally suited to Craig-Martin, who, one could easily postulate, would consider mere half measures loathsome.
To mark the two-hundredth anniversary of Waterloo, Lord Douro, the descendent of the original “Iron Duke,” decided to do what his ancestors had famously done—utilize the talent of contemporary artists to create new veins in the cultural lineage of Britain. Moreover, Lord Douro became especially infatuated with Craig-Martin after seeing the work he had created for William and Laura Burlington at Chatsworth, aka the Devonshire family estate.
For the uninitiated, Craig-Martin explains the pedigreed system succinctly, “William is the eldest son and one day will become the Duke of Devonshire himself, and I did the portrait of Lady Burlington, his wife. There is a tradition that the ‘to be’ duchess is painted and a portrait is done.”
Thus, when the commission was completed for Lady Burlington—who, to reiterate, will soon become the next Duchess of Devonshire—Craig-Martin fell into a stratospheric lineup of talent. His artistic predecessors who had produced earlier portraits include: Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), and, lastly, Lucian Freud (1922–2011). All the portraits are displayed at Chatsworth— and this becomes increasingly startling when one imagines Craig- Martin’s ever-changing computer portrait of Lady Burlington hanging in a room adjacent to the oil-and-linseed work of his predecessors. As many people know, Craig-Martin’s portraits are actual computer screens with software constantly running that perpetually changes the colors of every part of the image—hair, lips, clothing, etc. This means that the image will only repeat any single iteration in approximately 1,500 years. Meanwhile, Craig-Martin’s portrait of the first Duke of Wellington, also a “computer portrait,” will hang in Apsley House, situated across from Kensington Palace. The residence was a gift—a confectionary bauble—bestowed upon Wellington as a gesture of largesse upon his return from Waterloo two centuries ago.
In addition to the portrait of Lady Burlington, there was yet more work that turned the head of Lord Douro when it came to choosing Craig-Martin as the portrait artist for his ancestor. The grounds of Chatsworth, the vast estate where the future Duke and Duchess of Devonshire live, became a “canvas” for Craig-Martin. The residence, of course, is a visual tour de force, but the grounds are also stunning. They are the work of two of the most renowned landscape architects in history, Capability Brown and Sir Joseph Paxton. While Craig-Martin admits to some degree of intimidation
regarding altering a landscape of such historic importance, he nonetheless went to work and, among other pieces, installed an enormous neon stiletto that is rendered in a startling shade of cerise and serves as an ideal contrast to the brilliant green sward upon which it sits. He created a total of twelve sculptures on the estate and, as Craig-Martin notes, “It’s not meant to be ironic or mocking. It’s merely meant to allow one to look at the past through contemporary eyes.”
Among the installed pieces is a mammoth, yellow “Garden Fork” that is a stark juxtaposition to the enormously grand Devonshire stone manor adorned with balustrades, finials, and row upon row of elegant, multi-lit windows. His installation is a particularly strident move since the home has been a hallmark of British architecture since 1549. Moreover, a similar sculpture, “Garden Fork (Red),” was created by Craig-Martin and purchased by Dallas collectors, Christen and Derek Wilson, who subsequently put it on loan at the Nasher Sculpture Center. The artist lauds their ambitious taste by noting, “The quality of the best collections in Dallas is extraordinarily high.” And the spirit of admiration is reciprocated; Christen Wilson states, “I love Michael Craig-Martin’s work because it’s a bright mix of pop and conceptual art, but it also has a minimalist feel. I’m excited that he is being honored in Dallas at RE:DEFINE.” Thus, garden forks, scissors, and all manner of everyday objects are morphed into art. Moreover, part of the allure of his sculpted pieces is the fact that they, in the words of Craig- Martin, are “sculptures of drawings, rather than sculptures of objects.” Dubbed “the high priest of ordinary things,” he manages to pare things down to their most elemental form while conferring upon them his own deft brand of austerity.
For the RE:DEFINE event, Dallas’ Kenny Goss, co-founder of the Goss-Michael Foundation, is installing a number of Craig- Martin’s works at various Dallas locations. He, of course, owns an array of the artist’s works and, in fact, he and his former partner, George Michael, had their own digital portraits done by Craig- Martin; they remain permanent installations at the Foundation. Their commission predated that of the Duke of Wellington by years and, thus, they can be viewed as both savvy collectors and a renegade version of art world royalty. Craig-Martin is sure to be fêted in grand style when he comes to Dallas. Georgia Arnold, who is chairing the MTV RE:DEFINE event, states, “This will be the best year yet. In 2014, we’ve actively grown RE:DEFINE and hosted events in London and Miami to draw attention to our annual Dallas auction. We’re thrilled to be honoring artist, educator, and godfather of the YBAs, Michael Craig-Martin, and in addition, we have a strong roster of contributing artists, including Dan Colen and Nate Lowman.” And, after all, how could the city do less for someone who is the ultimate international art star and consummate gentleman? In North Texas vernacular, Michael Craig-Martin is, quite simply, the whole nine yards. –P