Michael Craig-Martin

4 Identical Boxes with Lids Reversed


Painted plywood
Object: 610 x 2438 x 914 mm
Purchased 1969

Display caption

According to Michael Craig-Martin, the very ordinariness of these simple grey boxes is intended to allow the viewer to focus on ''the idea embodied in the piece''. The work is an exploration of what happens to four identical structures when a logical mathematical progression is applied to them. The lids were created by cutting away the top surface of the boxes in a sequence of 6, 12, 18 and 24 inch intervals. The artist then reversed the order of the lids, placing the first lid on the fourth box, and so on. ''With the lids reversed, the boxes are always both visually and factually unique. However, taken as a whole, the piece is still essentially 4 identical boxes,'' he has commented.

Gallery label, December 2001

Catalogue entry

Michael Craig-Martin b. 1941
Not inscribed.
Plywood painted with non-slip deck paint, 24×96×36 (61×244×91.5).
Purchased from the artist through the Rowan Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1969.
Lit: Richard Morphet, ‘London Commentary’ in Studio International, CLXXVIII, 1969, pp. 86–87; Simon Field, ‘London One’, in Art & Artists, IV, September 1969, pp. 48–50.

The dimensions cited above refer to the sculpture with the lids open. With the lids closed, the work measures 33×96×26¼ (84×244×66.5).

The artist wrote (Statement, 30 April 1970):

'I began making constructions in 1965. The first half dozen of these employed a variety of materials: hardboard, canvas, linoleum, paint, lights. The structures were based on simple letter and number forms. The colours employed were generally limited to silver, white and natural wood finish.

'In 1966, wishing to focus more clearly on the idea embodied in each piece and wanting to draw attention away from compositional concerns, I started working entirely in terms of a simple box format. I found that although the box had a strong assertive character, it was highly receptive to the introduction of simple, discrete ideas. The box was also by nature down to earth, utilitarian, familiar, ordinary. It was exactly these characteristics which I wished to examine in terms of real-scale, non-referential objects.

'I do not believe that the art object is the symbol of the art idea. It is its embodiment. The relation of idea to object is directly equivalent to the relation of colour, or material, or scale to object. They are all basically formal i.e. internally determined considerations. I feel that the idea achieves or fails to achieve credence and significance from this relation. The idea of itself can be simple, even banal, and yet give rise to provocative form, which in turn raises the significance of the idea.

' “4 identical boxes with lids reversed” grew out of work towards another quite different piece. In this original piece there were five identical boxes. Their dimensions were 24"×18"×18" each. The lids were cut half way up the front surface so that when open they would effect the maximum alteration to the reading of each piece. In other words, I wanted the lids to operate as equal partners with the boxes themselves in forming the object that resulted from opening. I did not want them to act as details. The opposite edge of the lids was cut in the top surface at 6" intervals: 6", 12" and 18" from the front, then 6" and 12" down the back. In this progression at the 5th and last box, the lid and box were identical. It seemed to me that at this point the nature of the progression was disturbed radically although this resulted from following the progression logically.

'This piece was never completed. Two drawings exist for it; one is the artist's copy, the other is in a private collection.

'Once the lids had been cut from the boxes I was struck by the remarkable differences between the various units. I found it difficult to recognise which lid fitted to which box. The idea occurred to try reversing the lids. As there were five boxes at this point the middle box did not change. The 5th lid, being half the size of a complete box, was too cumbersome and heavy to fit onto the very slight opening in the first box. For these reasons the 5th box and lid were removed from the series.

'The piece which now emerged when the lids were reversed, while still as straightforward and simple conceptually as the original, was enormously more complex and elusive visually.

'The crucial consideration in the piece is the relation of idea to form. The form derives from the straightforward following through of simple logical ideas, in this case, the idea of taking the progression and the idea of reversal. Though the form is completely controlled, it is not pre-meditated. The piece both explains and conceals itself.

'In the original five unit piece, I had hoped to imply the organisational integrity of symmetry in an asymmetrical situation. The boxes were identical when closed, and, arranged with a regular interval, the piece was symmetrical. Opening the boxes rendered the piece visually asymmetrical, though factually it remained symmetrical.

'In these terms, I considered the new piece both more surprising and more successful. With the lids reversed, the boxes are always both visually and factually unique. However, taken as a whole, the piece is still essentially 4 identical boxes. The title emphasises this fact which it is almost impossible to recognise visually. Nothing has been added or taken away. If the idea of taking the progression of lids can be considered to have a direction, reversing the lids cancels this direction conceptually and returns the piece to the original 4 identical boxes.

'The piece was painted pale grey so as not to draw attention to itself, and so as to emphasise the complexity of shadows which play through the piece. The textural quality of the paint is intended to relate the tactile quality of the surface to the tactile meaning of the piece.

'Despite the fact that there have been subsequent pieces employing the box format and dealing with related ideas, I consider “4 identical boxes with lids reversed” to be the culmination of my work in that area. I have found it difficult to develop directly from the piece, because it dominates my attempts to expand its concerns.

'The most interesting piece it has given rise to is “Progression of 5 boxes with lids reversed” (1969). This piece also deals with questions such as the relation of idea to form and symmetry/asymmetry. However, it employs as its principal concern the fact, which was eliminated from the 4 box piece, that in a reversal of an odd number of units the centre does not change.

'The Tate version of “4 identical boxes with lids reversed” should be regarded as the second in an edition of two. The piece shown at the Rowan [Repr. Studio International, loc. cit.] is the artist's copy and is not and will not ever be for sale. There are certain physical differences between the two versions. These arose principally from a regard for the nature of the problems involved in exhibition in a public gallery as opposed to a private collection. The two versions have identical proportions and are the same colour; that is, their basic appearance is identical. However, to make the Tate version more substantial, plywood instead of blockboard was used. The plywood is considerably more dense than blockboard and is thus heavier. This is immediately apparent in opening and closing the lids. The method of construction of the Tate piece involved insetting at the joints to make a stronger bond. The hinges are slightly heavier in the Tate version. Both versions have lead inset inside the forward panel of the largest lid to assure that it stays in position when closed. The Tate version has notably more lead both because the plywood lid is heavier and to assure that the lid cannot be easily opened accidentally. The original version was constructed entirely by the artist. The Tate version was constructed by the firm of John Holt Ltd, in the Fall of 1969. Finishing and painting was done by the artist.

'The boxes are constructed from ¾" birch plywood and are painted with pale grey paint containing fine sand particles. (Helmsman One can Polyurethane Non-Slip Deck Paint—Grey 002). The hinges are ½" chrome plated piano hinges. Before painting, the plywood was sealed with Ronseal Polyurethane Floor Sealer.

'The piece should be dated 1969.

'The boxes should always be shown in a row, eight inches apart, with hinges all facing in the same direction (this should be considered the front of the piece). The piece should be shown parallel to a wall, any distance from it, so long as this distance is not less than 32 inches. It does not matter when the piece is shown whether the largest box is at the extreme left or extreme right so long as the progression is maintained from largest to smallest. This decision should rest with the person responsible for exhibiting the piece with regard to the specific circumstances of each showing.

'The piece has been constructed to withstand normal heavy handling by the public. It is my wish that the public have the maximum degree of access to the piece, in accordance with the Tate's capacity to prevent destructive or careless handling. The piece is most vulnerable at the hinges, and attention should be paid to prevent excessive strain. It is recognised that the finish will rapidly discolour if handled often. This is to be considered a natural aspect of the life of the piece. The piece should be repainted only if actually damaged and repainting is essential.

'The idea of the blue graph lithograph titled “Print” in which the drawing of the piece is “embedded” in the hypometric graph was conceived in 1969. It was executed in 1970. It was my intention to unite the content of the print with its material as closely as possible.

' “Overprint I and II” were done by blowing up photos of the piece, open and closed, printing half-tone plates of them and then overprinting “Print” on each. Just as “Print” is as close to the original graph paper as possible, so the photo prints are intended to approximate to ordinary black and white photographs.

‘The prints are related to the piece only in the sense that they employ its image. The prints, as their titles suggest, are primarily about the nature of the printing procedure and especially their own production and the results of this process.’