Martin Gayford

Disciple of Duchamp

But the equally cutting-edge show at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery from New Zealander Simon Denny seems hamstrung by its medium

Michael Craig-Martin has had a paradoxical career. He is, I think, a disciple of Marcel Duchamp. But the latter famously gave up painting in favour of something more conceptual — ready-mades and whatnot — whereas Craig-Martin began with Duchampian concepts. He once exhibited a glass of water on a shelf together with a claim that he had mentally transformed these, by a kind of transubstantiation, into an oak tree. Then he metamorphosed himself into a still-life painter.

As his current exhibition at the Serpentine demonstrates, for nearly 40 years Craig-Martin’s staple subject-matter has been everyday tools, gadgets and accessories. An early example, ‘Vertigo’ (1981), consists of elegantly pared-down line drawings of a tin-opener, cassette tape, briefcase, book, plastic sandal and refrigerator ice-cube tray spread out in a fan-shaped flourish on the wall.

These oddments differ from many more traditional painterly themes in an interesting way: they are liable to become obsolete. Making predictions is tricky, especially — as Sam Goldwyn noted — about the future, but it is hard to envision an era in which the apples, glasses of wine or bunches of flowers favoured by still-life masters such as Chardin will have been superseded.

On the other hand, some of the objects in Craig-Martin’s work are already almost museum pieces. Sandals, tin-openers and —for the time being, at least — books are still around. But cassette tapes? Ubiquitous in the 1980s, they are rapidly going the way of the penny-farthing bicycle and the speaking tube. That’s why the Serpentine exhibition is entitled Transience.

Admittedly this has always occurred. Indeed, it happened to Duchamp, who, before he gave up his brushes, made wonderful depictions of chocolate grinders, perhaps a familiar sight in 1913 but almost unidentifiable a century later. But Craig-Martin’s exhibition underlines how the process is speeding up.

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