SPOTS, SHARKS, MAGGOTS AND MONEY
Damien Hirst is the Elvis of the English art world, its ayatollah, deliverer and big-thinking entrepreneurial potty-mouthed prophet and front man. Hirst synthesizes punk, Pop Art, Jeff Koons, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Bacon and Catholicism. He’s the working-class hero who as a 23-year-old art student at the University of London’s Goldsmiths college organized “Freeze,” an exhibition of his artwork and that of 15 school chums.
That show, and his own work featuring living flies and maggots, dead butterflies and cut-up dead animals, de-islandized England, alerting the world that Britain was no longer a second-tier art nation. While Hirst did not act alone, it is almost impossible to imagine the Tate Modern or the “yBa” (young British artists) phenomenon of the ’90s without his ambitions and aggression. Or his easy outrages: public drinking and drugging, saying things like “Women smell of kippers,” meeting a curator naked or tucking a chicken bone into his foreskin at a bar.
Two decades in, the father of three sons, operator of six studios, boss of (he says) 160 employees, one of Britain’s wealthiest citizens, Hirst is back and blatant as ever. This week he opened a retrospective of more than 300 of his multitudinous, assistant-made “spot paintings.” As Hirst has said, “I always . . . treat [art] as an all-or-nothing situation. There’s no way I’m going to settle for half.” Hence the survey is mounted simultaneously worldwide at all 11 of Larry Gagosian’s galleries. For five weeks, the sun will never set on a Hirst spot.
A Hirst Assessment
Damien Hirst has brought forth so much b.s., bad art and blatant moneymaking that it’s hard to remember that he’s not just a truculent huckster. He can be an exhilarating artist, too, when he’s not shooting himself in the foot. He’s the progenitor of his own one-man movement, one you might call Goth Minimalism: Donald Judd boxes with Ed Kienholz or Francis Bacon inside. Hirst’s way of putting gooey, gross things in immaculate vitrines can have startling graphic impact. His floating shark isn’t great art -- it could blend in at a seafood restaurant or natural-history museum. But it is an amazing sight, an optical jolt few artists ever manage.
His best piece (as he himself has said) is A Thousand Years, a 1990 vitrine containing live flies, maggots and a rotting cow head. It’s less jazzy to look at than the shark, but you end up thinking about life, death, chance and ecology in front of it. Same goes for his paintings made of real butterfly wings.
His spot paintings are spiffy riffs on Sol LeWitt’s ‘60s formula: authorless paintings that can be made by anyone. Each one looks cheery, fresh and modern. The grids are machinelike, the color lifelike -- bingo, a brand. I wouldn’t mind owning a spot painting at all. Yet the idea of owning more than one is unimaginable. You see one, and you really have seen them all.
His jam-packed 2000 Gagosian exhibition of medical equipment, anatomical models, live fish, pharmaceuticals, floating skeletons and fake cut-up cadavers showed Hirst to be an artist whose No. 1 urge is to make a wow. Sadly for him, that urge got the best of him, turning him into a brand name and self-parody. By 2005, we saw Hirst the stagy photorealist making banal, insipid images of Iraq, autopsies and bits of brains. Then there was a failed series of academic-looking Francis Bacon-like paintings. Finally, there was that $100 million diamond-encrusted skull. At the time, it seemed interesting, even though the object itself was visually dead. Now it only seems like a dull, neo-imperialistic bauble. He’s making mostly exhibitionistic schlock these days.
Hirst isn’t washed up. His ability to fuse art, opticality, material, subject and direct ideas at an almost atomic level says he could surprise us again. (His huge 2002 monochrome Armageddon, made entirely of dead flies, discharges psychic jolts.) I have my fingers crossed -- but I’d find it surprising to see him rise to his old level.
“Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011,” opened Jan. 12, 2012 at all 11 Gagosian galleries worldwide.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.