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18th February 2003
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News and Comment

Week in Focus

John Wilson Picture

Previous columns
John Wilson
A Man of Influence (contd.)
Michael Craig-Martin, courtesy of Waddington Galleries, London. Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.Talking to Michael Craig-Martin this week as he prepared a new exhibition in London, it was clear that the man is restlessly keen to kick-start his career as an artist. Who can blame him? He's good.

Although he talks about them with obvious affection and pride, the fact that the Hirst gang sped straight from graduation party to tabloid infamy has obviously impacted on his own fortunes.

'I'm competitive, of course, we all are.' he admits, 'No artist likes to be known purely as a teacher of better known artists.' Galling though it may be for any artist to witness a career wane, Michael Craig-Martin has much to be proud of. His stories provide a unique insight into the formative years of artists who've led a collective assault on the public perception of what constitutes modern art. He recalls the time in the late 1980s when a series of small explosions, detonated in the college classrooms and studios, sent shock waves well into the next decade.

Damien Hirst, then as now, was the kingpin, the hustler who corralled the talents of his peers for a series of exhibitions entitled Freeze. 'They were so unlike any other student shows' recalls Craig-Martin, 'so full of energy and ambition'. He reveals that early Hirst efforts featured a coagulation of tiny boxes 'like a beehive' stuck to a gallery ceiling, not the ideal place for maximum impact. There were no carved carcasses or pickled fish, that all came later in a formaldehyde flourish, though a couple of the pieces did feature dead butterflies, materials that still crop up in the Hirst repertoire.

Damien Hirst From Goldsmiths' cramped studios to grand New York galleries, Craig-Martin has kept a keen eye on the projectile fortunes of Damien Hirst and his contemporaries - as mentor, fan and student. He's learnt much by watching his former charges growing up in public, and now it's payback time. He knows things are getting better because the first question strangers ask is no longer 'what's Damien up to?'.

As the advert nearly said, 'no-one forgets a good student'.

John Wilson is a presenter on Front Row (weekdays, 7.15pm, Radio 4)

Coloured TV by Michael Craig-Martin can be downloaded from the digital arts pages.

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