Martin Creed: “Work No. 798,” 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York.
Mr. Creed tends to make small gestures. These two wall paintings Work No. 798 (2007) and Work No. 1349 (2012) must first have had a hidden existence as a few lines of text on copy paper, possibly printed out from an e-mail. Following this map a museum installation crew carefully laid out the diagonal lines with a ruler and a pencil. Then later they filled them in with a paint roller while standing on a ladder or a pneumatic scissor lift.
Given their origins as “work-to-be-done,” the black lines in No. 798 and the red squares in No. 1349 are painted so as to be painfully matter of fact. The sparse construction of the work gives little evidence of Mr. Creed personally. In fact I’ve seen sponge painting in truck-stop bathrooms that provokes more empathy from me. But it’s not about that. To criticize these in terms of aesthetics would be like complaining that the concrete sidewalk is gray. Sure, you could do it, but what would be the point?
The patterns themselves are too simple to be revelatory. Again, this is not interior decor. What the patterns are is visually disorienting. In Michel Pastoureau’s book on the cultural history of stripes, The Devil’s Cloth, he notes that the medieval association of stripes with the devil drove their use to mark heretics, the diseased, and prisoners. Later, the artists of the European avant garde adopted the stripe again for those same rebellious connotations. Stripes themselves still have a complicated social meaning.
Again from Pastoureau,
To stripe a surface . . . serves to distinguish it, to point it out, to oppose it or associate it with another surface, and thus to classify it, to keep an eye on it, to verify it, even to censor it.
[but . . .]
In the stripe, there is always something that resists enclosure within systems, something that brings with it distress and confusion, something that “makes disorder.1
These two works are not about Mr. Creed’s emotional state, nor are they about some other metaphor, and they are decidedly not aesthetic. In all of his interventions Mr. Creed flirts with blankness, with artworks that are so sparse as to not seem like art.
Mr. Creed’s stripes or boxes do not extend to touch the edges of the wall, the ceiling, or the floor. Nor do they interrupt the wall labels, light fixtures, exhaust registers, or donor lists. The pattern politely pushes at the edges of the wall. Mr. Creed’s intervention is about filling space—the visual activation of a two-dimensional wall space for no other reason. These works mark a familiar, anonymous space with a hint of disorder.
1 Michel Pastoureau, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes, trans. Jody Gladding (New York: Simona and Schuster, 2003), 89–91.