Michael Craig-Martin

Half-Box (Green)


Wood and brass
Object: 625 x 1712 x 852 mm
Purchased 2003


Half-Box (Green) is a sculpture which may be viewed in two states. In its ‘closed’ state, it has the appearance of a simple triangular block, the upper surface of which is an isosceles triangle. Although it appears solid, lines indicating joins on the two equal length sides suggest that it may enclose space. The side which forms the hypotenuse of the triangle is bisected by a brass metal hinge. In its ‘open’ state, the triangular top section of the box is flipped 180 degrees around the axis of the hinge to lie flat against the surface on which the box sits. The resulting upper surface of the object has the form of a square made up of two triangles separated by the hinge. This square surface slopes from the vertex of one triangle, which touches the ground, to the vertex of the other which remains at the height of the closed object. Half Box (Green) was made following a principle similar to that used in a slightly later work, 4 Identical Boxes with Lids Reversed 1969 (Tate T01153). Like Half Box (Green), the boxes in the later work have hinged lids which may be displayed open or closed, but the boxes themselves are hollow, suggesting a utilitarian purpose. In contrast Half Box (Green), whether open or closed, is composed entirely of smooth green surfaces, rendering it self-contained as a solid geometric object. While in its closed state it appears to have the potential for containment, in its open state it denies function. Craig-Martin has written:

In 1966 ... 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.

(Quoted in The Tate Gallery 1968-70, London 1970, p.79.)

Craig-Martin was born in Dublin, Ireland. He moved to the US in 1945, where he was educated, and studied painting at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (BA 1961-3 and MA 1964-6). He moved to England in 1966, the year of an exhibition which had a profound influence on him. Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in Brooklyn, New York was a survey of contemporary British and American sculpture in a style that later became known as Minimalism. Like such Minimalist sculptures as the mirror boxes, Untitled 1965/71 (Tate T01532), by Robert Morris (born 1931), Craig-Martin’s works of the late 1960s were geometric in form and designed to be placed directly on the gallery floor. However, unlike Minimalist sculpture they were intended to be manipulated by the viewer, invoking questions about their formal autonomy and thus their status as objects. Minimalism as a movement was material and process-based and tended towards abstraction. Craig-Martin’s work, by contrast, is based on ordinary, utilitarian objects. The relationship between form (either sculptural or linear) and function has been central to Craig-Martin’s art since this time. He uses the simplified forms of recognisable household elements in order to investigate the visual language underlying the appearance of things. His works question what it is that makes a work of art recognisable as a work of art. This investigation culminated in An Oak Tree 1973 (Tate L02262), in which the Roman Catholic notion of transubstantiation is used to suggest that the element central to defining art is belief. In the boxes Craig-Martin employed a process of reversal to identify ordinary functionality as one element of definition. The operations of opening and closing Half Box (Green) reveal that it has no capacity to contain, thus denying its status as an object of use and defining it instead as an art work. Craig-Martin later commented: ‘art always involves looking at something familiar as though it were unfamiliar. It doesn’t invent anything: everything that art deals with is around.’ (Quoted in Andrew Renton, ‘Michael Craig-Martin: I Feel very Strange When People Call Me A Sculptor’, Flash Art, no.152, May/June 1990, pp.130-3, p.131.)

Further reading:
Michael Craig-Martin: A Retrospective 1968-1989, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, London 1989
Michael Craig-Martin: Selected Works 1966-1975, exhibition catalogue, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, Institute of Contemporary Art, London and Turnpike Gallery, Leigh 1976
1965 to 1972 – When Attitudes Became Form, exhibition catalogue, Kettle’s Yard Cambridge and Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 1984, p.37, reproduced p.37

Elizabeth Manchester
April 2003

Display caption

Half-Box (Green) can be exhibited in two states. In its ‘closed’ state, it appears to be a simple triangular block. When opened, it presents a square surface. When the work was originally shown, the viewer was invited to open or close the box. The idea that the work depends on the active intervention of the viewer can be seen as Craig-Martin’s ironic response to the idea of the ‘autonomous object’ associated with Minimalist artists such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt.

Gallery label, July 2008

Technique and condition

The following entry is based on an interview with the artist, Michael Craig-Martin, held on 15th May, 2003, as well as the conservation records held in Sculpture Conservation.

Half-Box (green) consists of two box-like forms placed one above the other and hinged on the longest side. Stacked, they appear as one box, with an isosceles triangle as its area. A cut out handle near the apex of the top surface invites the viewer to pull the upper box up and lower it down in front of the lower box so the sculpture is transformed into another box shape with a diamond shaped area and a sloping top. Similar to 4 Identical Boxes with Lids Reversed (T01153), for Craig-Martin, the original idea was that people were supposed to open and close it. “It was meant to get around the idea of the sculpture being so precious that you weren’t allowed to touch. My thought was to make a sculpture that in order to see it; you had to touch it” (artist interview, May 2003).

The sculpture is made from blockboard. It was cut using a jig-saw and then painted with a very glossy pale green polyurethane paint. In the 2003 interview in Sculpture Conservation, Craig-Martin noted that he specifically bought yacht paint to make the surfaces as perfect as possible, “which I suppose was a new kind of paint to have at that time”. It was a painstaking process as he had to apply the paint with a brush to each surface, one at a time, as the surfaces had to be flat to avoid drip marks. He also erected a polythene tent to reduce dust settling in the slow drying paint. He then polished the painted surface with very fine abrasive papers to achieve a high-gloss, lacquer-like surface.

On acquisition there was damage to the pointed section, some losses and cracks along joints and the paint was scuffed and marked. It was restored in 2005 after consultation with the artist who was happy for us to fill and retouch the damaged areas.

Half-Box should be displayed open but Craig-Martin would also like to see it occasionally closed as, “it’s hard to tell what it actually does if you don’t see that” (artist interview, May 2003). When the box is open, to avoid damaging the paint surface, the fine bottom point should not touch the ground at all.

Bryony Bery / Melanie Rolfe
November 2003 / May 2005