22 October 2023

An Irish sculptor’s
‘Fountain Pen’ expresses
the history of research
and learning in Oxford

‘Fountain Pen’ (2019) is a striking public sculpture by Michael Craig-Martin in the Jericho area in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Michael Craig-Martin’s sculpture ‘Fountain Pen’ (2019) is a striking work of public art on Walton Street in the Jericho area in Oxford, in front of the Blavatnik School of Government and facing the Oxford University Press.

The public sculpture is a vivid magenta in colour and balances strikingly on the single point of the nib of a pen. It is intended to express the unique history of research and learning in Oxford. It was commissioned by the Blavatnik School of Government to celebrate the University of Oxford’s Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, where the school is based, and as a striking addition to the local environment.

When ‘Fountain Pen’ was unveiled, Michael Craig-Martin said the sculpture was the tallest, heaviest and ‘most daring’ sculpture he has ever produced.

‘The fountain pen is one of those few objects that is old fashioned, it refers to the past, but it is also a current object,’ the artist said. ‘We still sign documents with fountain pens, there’s a grandeur to it. Whenever the American president signs a bill, he always gives away a lot of fountain pens.’

The work has been installed in Jericho, a largely residential suburb. ‘It’s right on the border between the university and the rest of the city, so it has meaning in relation to the university, but it also has meaning to school kids,’ the artist said. ‘It’s not an image that is exclusive – it’s accessible to all.’

Michael Craig-Martin created ‘Fountain Pen’ during the lockdown. At the time, many sculptors were facing problems with the supply of materials and access to studios, yet it was only delayed by six months.

Craig-Martin says his ‘Fountain Pen’, which is five metres-tall, was ‘technically challenging.’ It is balanced on the nib, and he had to double the thickness of the galvanised steel, from 25 mm to 50 mm, so that the sculpture can withstand its public surroundings.

As he puts it: ‘Previously, I have made sculptures for people’s properties or gardens, or, if they are in a public space, they are not there for long. Whereas this really is a permanent work, so it’s much grander and much heavier than any sculpture I’ve ever done before.’

Michael Craig-Martin’s works of sculpture have a powerful visual impact and relationship to their surroundings, and ‘Fountain Pen’ echoes the circularity of the Blavatnik School building and its notable banding, designed by Herzog and DeMeuron.

The modern, bold aesthetic is appropriate given its location next to the school, while its connotations of the written word echo and emphasise the cultural identity of Jericho, an area whose history and identity has been shaped by Oxford University Press.

‘The image I proposed for Oxford was that of a fountain pen. The image can be seen as a reference to serious study and learning, particularly to the signing of important documents, an age-old formality that connects, like Oxford itself, the past and the present, and which is recognised globally,’ Michael Craig-Martin said.

‘We’re delighted to have Michael Craig-Martin’s striking work,’ said Professor Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government. ‘He is already known in Oxford for his mural at the JR [John Radcliffe] Children’s Hospital, and we hope his new installation will further contribute to the city’s environment and community.’

Professor Sir Michael Craig-Martin was born in Dublin in 1941 and has lived and worked in Britain since 1966. He is well known to have been an influential teacher at Goldsmiths College, London, where he is an Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at Goldsmiths.

He has had numerous exhibitions and installations in galleries and museums around the world. He is known for fostering the Young British Artists, many of whom he taught, and for his conceptual artwork, ‘An Oak Tree.’

Michael Craig-Martin was born in Dublin, but spent most of his childhood in Washington DC. Later, he studied in Lycée Français in Bogotá, Colombia, and at Fordham University, New York. He then studied art at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris and Yale University. Craig-Martin was a tutor at Goldsmiths College from 1973, and his students included Damien Hirst.

He exhibited his seminal piece ‘An Oak Tree’ in 1973 It consists of a glass of water standing on a shelf attached to the gallery wall, next to which is a text using an argument to explain why it is in fact an oak tree. The work was bought by the National Gallery of Australia in 1977, and the Tate has an artist’s copy.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin presented ‘Michael Craig-Martin: Works 1964-2006’ (2006), which included works from over 40 years of his career, including paintings, sculptures, wall drawings, neon works and text pieces.

Craig-Martin was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2001 and was knighted in 2016 for services to art. His memoir, On Being An Artist, was published in 2015.

Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘Fountain Pen’ faces the Oxford University Press (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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