Summary

Six Foot Balance with Four Pounds of Paper is a wall-mounted sculpture consisting of a simple, six-foot long steel balance. It is installed with a lead weight of four pounds suspended from one end, in equilibrium with a sheaf of paper of equal weight suspended from the other end. The sheaf comprises approximately forty-two sheets of large, thick, cream pages, each of which bears an identical photo-lithographic representation of the weight. It is suspended by two brass sleeve bolts which hold the stack of paper flat so that, at first glance, it appears as a single sheet. The weight is hung at the same height as its representation printed on the paper. In this way, the object is placed in a position of literal equality with its depiction. Six Foot Balance with Four Pounds of Paper invokes the old paradigm concerning the relative weights of a pound of feathers and a pound of lead, which are of course the same. Like feathers, paper appears relatively light in weight. When it is presented in equilibrium with lead, which appears heavy, visual expectations are momentarily disturbed. Craig-Martin has explained that what his work deals with is ‘the most essential characteristic of art, and the only really essential one, which is an aspect of faith and an aspect of thought and, because it’s a visual art, what it looks like ... the appearance of things’ (quoted in Michael Craig-Martin: A Retrospective 1968-1989, p.11). A questioning of how objects are perceived is central to his work. Six Foot Balance with Four Pounds of Paper draws attention to an underlying language of visual signs by playing on the discrepancy between visual appearance and physical characteristics.

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 function and thus their status as objects. While Minimalism was material and process-based with a tendency towards abstraction, Craig-Martin used recognisable household objects. After making a series of apparently utilitarian boxes which defied functionality, he turned to construction using ready-made elements. His use of humble, easily accessible materials of the sort which may be found in a hardware store in order to create visual (and later verbal) puns recalls the appropriation and renaming of a manufactured urinal by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). With Fountain 1917/1964 (Tate T07573), Duchamp placed the emphasis on naming as a crucial element to reading an object as a work of art. Craig-Martin used a similar strategy in a later work, An Oak Tree 1973 (Tate L02262), in which he claims that a glass of water is an oak tree.

Six Foot Balance with Four Pounds of Paper, like other works Craig-Martin made in the same year, has a simple, descriptive title and uses balancing and weights as a metaphor for intellectual activity. Counter-weight Enclosed and Exposed (collection the artist) consists of two systems of hanging weights, one of which is visible, the other concealed. In On the Table (Jessica Craig-Martin), four pails of water simultaneously support and sit on a table surface. Pulleys attached to the ceiling connect the pails to the table surface. Because they are heavier than the wooden table top, they appear to rest on it while actually holding it up. These works operate as simple logic games or conundrums which emphasise the distinction between seeing (apprehension) and reading (which depends on an underlying order or language). The process of transformation involved in recognising a work of art is played out in the visual and physical attributes of ordinary things. 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, p.14, reproduced p.47, pl.9 in colour
Michael Craig-Martin: Selected Works 1966-1975, exhibition catalogue, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, Institute of Contemporary Art, London and Turnpike Gallery, Leigh 1976, reproduced p.10
1965 to 1972 – When Attitudes Became Form, exhibition catalogue, Kettle’s Yard Cambridge and Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 1984, p.37

Elizabeth Manchester
April 2003