In a world full of arbitrary choices, Martin Creed is an artist who uses systems to make decisions and create order. Unlike most of the YBAs, who are mainly traditionalists using unconventional materials, Creed is a true conceptualist, and his work embodies the 2.0 of contemporary British art. In the lineage of Sol LeWitt—but also radically departing from his precedent—Creed examines ideas and material, identifying a problem-solving strategy that then dictates the rules and the end product. Decisions and flourishes in the work are defined and justified by the limits of his methodologies, materials, or both. And in identifying these strategies, the viewer sees how absurdly ingenious Creed can be.
One framework that is readily apparent for all of Creed’s work at his major survey show at Hayward Gallery is a numbering system that he started using around 1991. Every work has a unique number assigned to it, but not every work receives a title. Whilst considering one of the large gallery walls covered with 1,000 multicolored imprints of broccoli on card, titled Work No. 1000: Broccoli Prints (2009-10), I considered the idea of frameworks and was reminded of a joke my wife’s grandmother used to tell frequently. In some ways, it works as a nice analogy for the moment one has when looking at Creed’s work. To paraphrase:
A woman walks into a grocery store and asks the clerk for some broccoli. The clerk responds that they’re fresh out of broccoli, but the woman refuses to yield on her request. After a bit of back-and-forth, the exasperated clerk offers:
Clerk: Ma’am, spell the “car” in carrot.
C: Okay, now spell the “let” in lettuce.
C: Very good, now spell the “fuck” in broccoli.
W: [pause] There is no fuck in broccoli.
C: That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!
The woman is of course a stand-in for the viewer who comes to the work with presuppositions, which leaves the artwork to play the role of the clerk—the voice of deadpan, punning logic. In this situation, there is a crisis moment, and a blunt conclusion occurs at the end of the exchange; a solution is presented through the obvious, and the viewer is left considering a joke that is a result of the framework. Work No. 1000 is necessarily an artwork made from 1,000 prints, because of its rank in the numbering system, and its title dictates its form. The part the viewer is then left to consider is the absurdity of making 1,000 imprints of a vegetable.
In the early days of conceptual minimalism, it was considered frivolous to make a piece look good, and there certainly wasn’t much room for fun or humor. All effort was to be put into the formula through which a concept was to find resolution. Conceptually comprehensive systems can turn out to be overly didactic and eventually become stale. LeWitt—the grandmaster of closed-ended instructions—fully understood this dilemma and seemingly abandoned it for broad strokes of good-looking color. Creed has borrowed and learned from the best, yet he hasn’t prevented a conceptual strategy from having fun or looking good. Work No. 200: Half the Air in a Given Space (1998) is one of the most beautiful conceptual gestures that I’ve thought about or seen. The piece consists of a room with half the airspace taken up with white balloons. The viewer is allowed to enter and be engulfed by the piece. It is a perfectly distilled idea illustrated physically in a playful and beautiful way.
Creed’s work functions like a song with a good hook. There may be a moment when a piece isn’t fully understood, but there is no secret language to decode. If necessary, give it a bit of time and it will then be plainly obvious what the piece is attempting to do. Frank Stella famously said, “What you see is what you see.” What’s the Point of It? is an incredibly satisfying exhibition that presents the very best that Creed has to offer without hiding the blemishes. Considered as a whole, this comprehensive survey strikes the perfect balance of a super-smart conceptual practice with a sexy but justified veneer. What is evident is that Creed can have his “fuck in” broccoli and eat it too.
Martin Creed: What’s the Point of It? is on view at Hayward Gallery through April 27, 2014.