Exhibition Review: Damien Hirst

Posted on January 21, 2012


Damien Hirst. Installation View. 2012.

Damien Hirst’s “The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011,” is a show of some three hundred works that has been given the exclusive simultaneous run of each of Larry Gagosian’s eleven galleries for the next month. It’s a big-budget painting show in which a mega-dealer fetes one of his mega-stars. In the age of the Art Career, shows like this one galvanize fans and detractors in equal measure, but throw in the simplicity of the paintings—they consist entirely of colored polka dots painted at regular intervals over a flat ground—and the fact that Hirst has only painted a handful of them himself, and we’re left with an ideological battleground for those who worship at the altar of conceptualism and those who disdain it.


Hirst’s ascent to stardom was rapid. Having organized the Freeze art show in London in 1988 while still in his early 20s, he attracted the attention and benediction of celebrity collector Charles Saatchi. Anointed one of the stars of the future in Saatchi’s Young British Artists exhibition in 1992, Hirst went on to represent Britain in the next year’s Venice Biennale and won the coveted Turner Prize in 1995. He has been a fixture of the art world ever since, scoring a major coup in 2008 when he eschewed his dealers entirely by bringing hundreds of new works to market directly through Sotheby’s. The exhibition, titled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, resulted in nearly $200,000,000 in sales.


Known for such works as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living—the dead shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde that was recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum—and For the Love of God—a human skull covered in more than 8,600 diamonds—Hirst’s approach to art making is a torpedoes-be-damned embrace of the literal. Early works like In and Out of Love and A Thousand Years, meditations on life and death, actually contained the entire life cycle. In the former, caterpillars hatched into butterflies, which flew into and died upon sugar-coated canvases. In the latter, maggots were introduced into one of Hirst’s signature glass cases that contained the severed head of a cow. Feeding on the cow until they become flies, they flew around before being zapped by the electric insect trap than hung overhead. Offering the public super-condensed confrontations with mortality that were not even the purview of the farmer or outdoorsman, such works aspired to the grand theme of life and death in nature, as in the following, from Norman MacLean:


“Big clumsy flies bumped into my face, swarmed on my neck and wiggled in my underwear. Blundering and soft-bellied, they had been born before they had brains. They had spent a year under water on legs, had crawled out on a rock, had become flies and copulated with the ninth and tenth segments of their abdomens, and then had died as the first light wind blew them into the water where the fish circled excitedly. They were a fish’s dream come true–stupid, succulent, and exhausted from copulation. Still, it would be hard to know what gigantic portion of human life is spent in the same ratio of years under water on legs to one premature, exhausted moment on wings.”


Taking the stuff of the natural history museum and bringing it into the art museum, Hirst has made the audacious bet that the literal can stand shoulder to shoulder with the metaphorical. Given the fun-house atmosphere that now pervades many major art museums, this bet seems like a good one. In the past two years in New York alone, one could slide between the floors of one museum, play in a bamboo tree house on the roof of another, and see the entire output of an artist hang, mobile-like, from the atrium of a third. In such company, it is not unreasonable to think of Hirst’s stable of pickled animals (including the goats, sheep and cows that have also been subjected to their own chemical baths), as perfectly rational emblems of the zeitgeist.


But if Hirst’s installations appeal for their directness, his paintings suffer from the same quality. For painting, like poetry, is an art dictated by metaphor. If Hirst’s innovation was to show the world that a dead shark has all the resonance and associative power of a dead shark, his failure has been the lack of recognition that painting can contain the resonance and associative power of so much more than paint. So, despite the many layers of celebrity, money and art world mega-wattage involved, the impact of the Gagosian show lies ultimately in one layer alone: that of the commercial house paint Hirst’s assistants have applied, in perfect round circles, to the surface of his canvases.


Damien Hirst. Installation View. 2012

The impact, unfortunately, is underwhelming. Painted in high gloss against flat white grounds, variously colored polka dots decorate rectangular and circular canvases of all sizes. The dots range in their colors and dimensions from painting to painting. One work features dots as small as 1 millimeter. In another, they’re as wide as 60 inches. One contains half a dot. Others have four. One has 25,781. The small ones, which bring to mind dot candy, are slightly more interesting than the large, which look like Twister game boards. Optically, one’s eyes tend to follow the darker dots, in a sort of futile attempt to find something to latch on to. While the futility of such a course is, apparently, part of the point, the lasting effect is akin to looking at a giant word search in which the letters don’t ultimately connect.


That these works contain none of the depths of meaning that we expect from serious painting is due entirely to the artist’s inability to work in the language of metaphor. This not uncommon problem in contemporary painting is in its various guises evidenced by a misuse of the medium’s formal devices. In Hirst’s case it is pattern and color that have been employed as stylistic affectations without regard to meaning. Gagosian has touted the artist’s color sensibilities, and Hirst’s quote on color is offered as a sort of raison d’etre for the paintings:


“I was always a colorist, I’ve always had phenomenal love of color . . . I mean, I just move color around on its own. So that’s where the spot paintings came from—to create that structure to do those colors, and do nothing. I suddenly got what I wanted. It was just a way of pinning down the joy of color.”


But using color does not make one a colorist any more than banging on a piano makes one a composer, and if the spot paintings are a manifestation of Hirst’s love of color, it seems a chaste love indeed. Ultimately, the paintings miss out on the profound emotional resonance of the effective use of color as metaphor. Thus, despite his candied hues, his employment of color to do nothing situates Hirst far nearer the official salon painters of the 19th century than the Fauves. It’s a sensibility that connects Hirst to such painters as Fernand Cormon, who, thankfully, couldn’t quite get students like Emile Bernard and Vincent Van Gogh on his wavelength.


Fernand Cormon. "Cain Flying Before Jehovah's Curse." 1880.

(Another lesson in the dangers of disassociating color from its true function in painting is conveniently on offer at Carolina Nitsch Project Room, not far from Gagosian’s Chelsea locations. Next to, of all things, a Hirst spot print (Hydroxylysine, (2010), hangs Meltdown (1989), a work by the artist Sherrie Levine in which computers have been used to reduce works of Mondrian, Duchamp, Kirchner and Monet to their “essential” colors. They are an exercise in banality. That my parents decided to take color cues for their re-modeled kitchen from Vision After the Sermon; Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, makes for some interesting blue and green molding along reddish-orange and yellow walls. Gauguin it is not.)


As for Hirst’s other big formal device, it was only a matter of time before pattern got the super-flat treatment. Like the nude, pattern is a subject that painters of each generation return to, perhaps because it provides a historical benchmark by which the painterly tradition is both linked and updated. Those contemporaries who have used pattern to some interesting effect—Sol LeWitt, Sean Scully and Mary Heilman, to name a few—have employed it the way Picasso used African art, as a motif that strips painting bare of all but its most fundamental (and powerful) components. For such painters, pattern offers a neutral playing-field on which their true preoccupations play out.


Sol LeWitt. "Wall Drawing No. 146." 1972.

The repeating patterns across LeWitt’s wall drawings become petri dishes out of which grow remarkably startling confrontations with optical perception. Repetition in a Lewitt allows for a mathematical basis by which to judge perception, the way regularly spaced trees or furrowed fields provide similar benchmarks for our experience of scale, space, distance, and even color, in nature. Scully, too, takes the strict confines of pattern as the basis for work that transcends its constraints. His subject is no more the repeated rectangle than Cezanne’s is the dishcloth. It is the ways in which his rectangles push up against one another, with subtle modulations of paint within their volumes and on their edges, that give tremendous variety to how we read the pieces in play.


An acknowledgement is due that something does happen optically when the eye takes in Hirst’s vast fields of colored dots, but it’s an experience more akin to looking at a snowy TV screen than a LeWitt. Such effects are more common in Hirst’s round paintings, where the vagaries of trying to keep concentric circles of dots evenly spaced lead to irregularities. That the eye can, in such cases, believe that it is traveling along one path and be thrown unexpectedly off on a tangent is the one and only interesting experience of the work.


Time and again, Hirst has pushed at the boundaries of the art world and found them to be exceptionally flexible. His big gambit, that an actual presentation of life and death would hold its own with mere allusions, has made him rich and famous. If, as Saatchi has predicted, Hirst’s name will be mentioned alongside those of Pollock and Warhol in the history books of the next century, it will not, however, be on the strength of “The Complete Spot Paintings,” which misuse the formal devices, and miss out on the real powers, of the medium.

(a shorter version of this review was originally published on artcritical.com)