Knowing is a large acrylic painting on canvas that depicts eight isolated objects shown against a bright red background. Viewed horizontally from top-left to bottom-right, these consist of a chair, a table, a step-ladder, a bucket, a fire extinguisher, a metronome, a torch and a globe. All are shown at three-quarter perspective and slightly from above, and they are rendered in a simplified and highly stylised manner using black outlines and block colours. Their hues generally do not correspond with their real-life counterparts – for instance, the globe’s sphere is a flat pink colour rather than the blue, green and yellow of a standard globe. The objects are loosely placed in three horizontal rows and they progressively diminish in size, with the objects in the bottom row appearing largest and those at the top of the canvas the smallest. These scalar shifts do not represent the objects’ likely dimensions (for instance, the step-ladder is shown as if smaller than the torch) and may instead suggest depth in the otherwise flat red space. However, any such spatial recession is highly ambiguous – as the critic Adrian Searle has observed, the objects ‘slope away … toward not one but several imperfectly aligned vanishing points’ (Adrian Searle, untitled text, in Waddington Galleries 1996, p.2). All of the colours used in the work are bold and opaque, with slight variations in gloss finish.
This painting was made by the Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin in London in 1996. It was executed on a single piece of medium-weight, cotton duck canvas that was initially primed with an acrylic gesso before being attached to an expandable stretcher. Craig-Martin then drew a grid on the canvas with a pencil, leaving a distance of 350 mm between each horizontal and vertical line, and some of these marks remain visible along the top of the work. The black outlines of the objects were most likely painted first and then left to dry, before being masked out while the block colours were applied. All of the coloured sections that make up the objects have at least one further layer of paint beneath them, mostly in a different colour from the topmost hue, suggesting that the artist may have made significant changes to the colour scheme as the work progressed.
This painting was first displayed in a solo exhibition of the artist’s work entitled Michael Craig-Martin: Innocence and Experience, which was held at the Waddington Galleries in London in 1997. Alongside Knowing, the show featured eight other paintings each depicting isolated objects set against monochrome backgrounds. Like Knowing, the other works in this show had titles that were either verbs denoting cognitive or sensory processes (such as Looking 1996) or nouns referring to perception, emotion or states of being (for instance Innocence and Experience (Flashlight) 1996, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester). The critic Richard Cork has observed that in these paintings, ‘familiar objects were transformed by incessant changes in their colour, size and relationship with “neighbouring forms”’. Discussing Learning 1996, which was also exhibited in the Waddington Galleries show, Cork reflected that ‘The title summed up our experience in front of these images, forever realising how little we really know and how hard we need to look at the most seemingly mundane utensils ... we did not know if they were floating or resting on a surface. The space in this painting was infinitely ambiguous’ (Cork 2006, p.146). The same observations can be applied to Knowing, which seems to highlight the cognitive processes viewers must undertake when confronting its ambiguities, suggesting that Craig-Martin may have expected spectators to become aware of their act of comprehending and interpreting the work. Discussing his practice in general in 2002, Craig-Martin explained
I’ve always wanted to make what occurs when we look at something unavoidably obvious, so that you can dissect what’s happening … I’d like it to be as if everything was slowed down, so you could watch yourself putting together what it is to understand something … This is exactly how we operate, how we make sense of the world. But we don’t often have the chance to see ourselves in operation.
(Virginia Button and Michael Craig-Martin, ‘Implicit/Explicit: In Conversation with Michael Craig-Martin’, in Manchester Art Gallery 2002, p.21.)
Since the late 1970s, Craig-Martin has primarily produced paintings, drawings and reliefs depicting everyday objects in the same highly stylised manner used in Knowing (see also Full Life 1985, Tate T07392). In 2002 he stated that ‘I want you to have an instant sense of familiarity with the thing, and then to pass that first stage of recognition to some kind of second step of actually looking, to consider how things exist in conjunction with each other’ (Button and Craig-Martin 2002, p.21).
Michael Craig-Martin: Innocence and Experience, exhibition catalogue, Waddington Galleries, London 1996, reproduced pp.6–7.
Michael Craig-Martin: Inhale/Exhale, exhibition catalogue, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester 2002.
Richard Cork, Michael Craig-Martin, London 2006, pp.145–6, reproduced p.182.
Supported by Christie’s.