"To be an artist means making a life primarily of doing the work that you yourself decide to do. It isn't possible to sustain the engagement this requires unless the doing of it gives you pleasure. I don't mean fun, and making art can be both boring and depressing, but in essence it is a pleasure," Michael Craig-Martin contended a week before Damien Hirst's history-making auction at Sotheby's. One of Craig-Martin's achievements is to relate this kind of pleasure to his students at The University of London's Goldsmiths College, encouraging them to recognize and value the aspects of their work that gives them pleasure. Hirst, his most famous student, has certainly taken this to heart. He acknowledges this debt in his painting Michael with Diamond Skull, 2008, the last lot, Nr. 287, the ultimate parting shot of the Hirst blockbuster. Who has the cheekier smile-the skull or the teacher?
Craig-Martin is best known for three things - his early conceptual art, including An Oak Tree (1973), which was stopped by the Australian customs despite being physically constructed out of nothing more than a glass of water; his invention in 1978 of a style of drawing even more impersonal than that of Warhol, Caulfield, and Lichtenstein; and finally as the teacher at Goldsmiths from 1974-88 that launched the Young British Artists (among many others, he taught Angus Fairhurst, Mat Collishaw, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, and Simon Patterson). He came back to Goldsmiths in 1993 as the Millard Professor of Fine Art. His success has been built on a reputation for clinical thought, and yet he attributes it to the pleasure principle. His first teaching job was in 1966 at the Bath Academy, located at the time at Corsham on England's southern shore. Although born in Ireland, he had grown up and studied in affluent America, which he left for swinging but comparatively poor Britain-and so suddenly "I was poorer than anyone I'd ever met," he remembered in an interview with myartspace.com's American art critic Brian Sherwin. He discovered that "Corsham was an exceptionally good art school, in fact the whole developing system of British art education was excellent, but I found many of the teachers, British artists, had been deeply disappointed with their own art education. They were strongly motivated to create a new form of education that would give young artists the experience they themselves had missed. […] In contrast, I felt my own education at Yale had been extremely helpful-I arrived there when the legacy of Josef Albers was still strong. It had given me a positive sense of what art education could be, and that stayed with me."
In an earlier interview, Craig-Martin explained that, "My most helpful teachers were Al Held, Alex Katz, Jack Tworkov, and Neil Welliver. Among my fellow students were Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Jon Borofsky, Jennifer Bartlett, Victor Burgin. I think one's fellow students are at least as important, if not more so, than one's teachers." This lesson, this recognition and encouragement of student power, have proved vital. "The only time you, as an artist, are in a socially vibrant creative situation is when you are at art school. Too many students become secretive and self-protective, and of course you have the rest of your life to be like that. I tried to encourage communication between students. I told students if you see something you like by another student, stop and tell them."
Craig-Martin was only one teacher among many at Goldsmiths in the '70s and '80s. He gives the main credit to his head of department, Jon Thompson, who recruited him in the first place. Much of the myth of Craig-Martin as the teacher of the YBAs revolves around his neat reduction of concepts. He says, however, that contrary to myth he never discussed with students how to get on in the art world. "Until the early '90s there was virtually no art world for young artists in Britain. That's why Frieze was so important. The only real key to success as an artist is making good work, and at Goldsmiths we tried to help students make good work." If anything, Craig-Martin is prone to that fabled sense of British understatement. Without a doubt, the artist is nothing less than a perfectionist, not only in his teaching, but also in his work. His eye for details hints to a great deal of pleasure in the execution of his exacting drawing style. But Craig-Martin prefers talking about "good work" instead, about the birth of ideas and the communication between artists.