Michael Craig-Martin

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Michael Craig-Martin is an artist and former teacher at Goldsmiths. He was awarded an honorary fellowship in 2001.

Michael Craig-Martin is an influential conceptual artist and painter, instrumental in fostering the Young British Artists movement. Craig-Martin is a former teacher at Goldsmiths and was awarded an honorary fellowship in 2001. In 2016 he was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to art.

You first came to Britain in the 1960s. Was it normal at the time to be teaching as well as making your work?
I came to England in 1966 when I was barely 26. I left Yale in June and I was teaching in September. Within a year, I had been introduced to almost every artist I had ever heard of in England – Patrick Caulfield, Bridget Riley, Richard Hamilton and Howard Hodgkin. Then I got a gallery and I had my first show in 1969. It did not seem surprising to me that I would teach and work: first of all, because it gave one a comparatively decent income, and, secondly, because it kept one in the business. In 1973, I came to teach at Goldsmiths and it was extraordinary. At the time the school had a terrible reputation for being anarchic, so my friends commiserated with me for the nightmare that I was stepping into. But Jon Thompson [then Head of Art] was totally passionate about teaching and about art education. Our idea was to completely renew the idea of art education, which was very much Jon’s agenda. We were going to re-invent British art education.

Did it begin right away to draw in interesting students or did it take a bit of time to build up?
The funny thing is the year I arrived, there were some of the most interesting students I’d ever had. Jon was interested in the wayward students – the difficult, stroppy, slightly crazy people. We were interested in art that wasn’t just defined by painting or sculpture in the traditional sense. There were students doing performance, film or video, writing, installation. At the time this stuff was very speculative, it was a small part of the art world at that time. This was very, very close to the cutting edge of what was going on in the world outside. I can truthfully say that during the 70s there was no place in London to see more interesting art than at Goldsmiths.

The YBAs were all at Goldsmiths in a very short space of time. Did you have a sense when they showed up that there was something extraordinary about them?
My experience of teaching is that I have never been to any art school where I didn’t meet interesting students. But I became aware that I was seeing an exceptional number of very, very interesting people. I tried to mix the students which generated a kind of dialogue amongst them. They were getting used to looking at each other’s work in depth and also being jealous of each other and being competitive in the best possible way. If I did a seminar and Sarah Lucas did something fantastic, then Gary Hume was pissed off because she got all the attention and he wanted it – it’s a normal human thing, but it had an amazing effect. One of the things that was incredible good fortune for all of them was Damien [Hirst] doing Freeze. They were all doing diverse things but Freeze gave them a group identity. Then subsequently, everything that happened to one of them, helped all the others. 

Do you think that kind of engagement where you challenged them to be interested in each other gave them a confidence that allowed them to project what they were doing in the professional world?
A lot of it is to do with having the confidence to speak your mind and having the words to speak your mind. If I was mixing people who did photography and performance with people who did painting or sculpture, everyone starts to learn the language that different disciplines need. You don’t have to be a painter and only talk about painting, you can have a view about sculpture. One of the things that I thought was very striking, as soon as anybody did anything really terrific – everybody could tell. That is a very important thing to see happen and once you’ve seen that, you want it again – it’s a drug. One of the things that I loved about the way Goldsmiths approached things was that it was student-led and also retroactive. The whole idea was to focus the responsibility on the person themselves rather than a tutor giving a project. I developed a strong sense in myself and a confidence that I could feel when someone was doing work that was appropriate to their inner self. You need time with the person and to get to know them in relation to the work. I could spend unbelievable amounts of time, which I often did, hours and hours over years, getting to know people really well so I had a sense of what their potential was.

These kinds of relationships that you were able to form have gone on – have you remained close to many of the people you taught?
Of course when they left Goldsmiths I was excited by what they were doing and I felt like if I didn’t continue to engage with them and be supportive, it was as though I didn’t mean what I said when I was teaching them. We had so much fun and it was a very enjoyable time. It’s a source of great pleasure and happiness that there is hardly anybody from that time that I don’t think of as a friend, it’s quite extraordinary really.

Interview by Richard Noble