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by Walter Robinson
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"The kiddies love it!" proclaims an email from photog Spencer Tunick, accompanied by several jpgs of two little girls frolicking at the Damien Hirst "Spot Paintings" exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York. The smaller child, who is maybe three years old, wears a turquoise coat and a patterned pink hat with earflaps and pompoms, and holds a pink stuffed monkey. On the doll is a pin that reads, "I [spot] DH."

"The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011," Jan. 12-Feb. 18, 2012, isn’t an art exhibition so much as an exercise in love and hate. Art-worlders define themselves by their feelings about the stuff, they don't even have to see it to know which side they’re on. It’s odd to think that while Hirst is the most successful artist of his time, he must also be the most despised.

But the kids, we really have to listen to the kids on this one. They know polka-dots, to call Hirst’s spots by their real name. They're pretty, they’re round, they’re fun. They belong to kids, first and foremost. That’s the kind of primal level of engagement we’re talking about here.

On W. 24th, the gallery includes a small room that doubles as a shop, where the “I [spot] DH” pins are sold, for $1.09, including tax. They're worth buying, if only for the experience of counting out your pennies to Larry Gagosian.

So, is that the question, “Where’s the love come from?” The answer is friends and family, for the new show of 15 large group portraits by Eric Fischl at Mary Boone Gallery on West 24th Street. With titles like The Gang and Saint Barts Ralphs 70th, the subject for the painter this time around is clearly personal. “Ralph” is photographer Ralph Gibson, and actor Steve Martin and artist Bryan Hunt also make appearances. “Eric was nervous,” someone said, “about showing the portraits.”

Unsurprisingly, in our era of divorce, the show’s subtext is its record of couples undone. In the entryway, a masterful portrait of auctioneer Simon de Pury in a suit with the nude figure of painter Anh Duong, his one-time date, slouched across his lap like a Pieta is all the more suggestive in the context of de Pury’s more recent marriage to Michaela Neumeister. Inside, we have pictorial records of families in happier times -- best-selling author Richard Price and his then wife, now Judy Hudson, and Francesco Clemente and his wife Alba, who is said to be planning to depart her storied marriage at last.

At the opening the show was packed, with Fischl happily out in the crowd greeting well-wishers, many of them upscale clients and friends of clients. Nearby was his wife, artist April Gornik, who also figures in Fischl’s paintings, wearing a polka-dot bathing suit, as it happens. Mary Boone’s price list was laid proudly on the front desk as usual with its notorious red dots (9 of 15 at the opening), but for once the actual prices are left off. We know from Art Basel Miami Beach that the pictures can cost north of $1 million.

You could say that love comes like a miracle, a few blocks uptown at Peter Blum Gallery on West 29th Street, in apparitions of Jesus. Stylish new paintings by Jason Fox (1964) feature images of a long-haired bearded holy hippie that emerges from almost casual washes of color, which can simultaneously present an image of a cross, or of the figure of a man standing at the crossroads. Makes me think of Sigmar Polke’s famous 1969 work, Higher Beings Command: Paint the Right Upper Corner Black!

Fox lives in Poughkeepsie, of all places, with his wife, the artist Huma Bhabha. It’s easy to imagine a mutual cross-fertilization, and you could posit that the two are developing what might be called a “primitive pop” esthetic. Previously Fox portraits of guys with colored-ball clown noses attached directly to the canvas were exhibited at Franklin Parrasch Gallery and in “Drunk v. Stoned” at GBE. These newer paintings of Jesus -- or it could be a bluesman or George Harrison in his sitar days -- range in price from $7,500 to $20,000.

You get love, for being damaged, too, as the Grammy Awards Ceremony illustrated earlier this week all too convincingly, notably as Rihanna sang “we found love in a hopeless place” while writhing on the floor. Last month, on Jan. 26, 2012, the Museum of Modern Art and its auteur curator Klaus Biesenbach took a flyer and presented “Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights” at Radio City Music Hall, complete with a 60-piece orchestra. This sort of thing isn’t MoMA’s usual métier.

Antony’s love is from a damaged place, as he more or less signaled in the publicity photographs by Mark Seliger, for which he posed while wrapped in a blanket like some kind of mental case. But Antony is to the Queer avant-garde what Adele is to schoolgirls, and everyone loved it, in part because he represents a star from the Avenue A Pyramid Club days making good.

Trauma still signals authenticity, and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

And love comes on Valentine’s Day, which was marked this year with the delivery to the press of a beribboned gift bag of chocolates and candy hearts from Allegra LaViola Gallery down on East Broadway, to promote “Made for Love,” the new show of paintings by Sarah Kurz. Most of them are romantic, but one is more provocative, a painting of a life-sized pair of breasts, titled Tried and True. It is perhaps best viewed in private, like those now celebrated cabinet erotica pictures by Gustave Courbet.

Small and pale and shockingly inexpensive, these come-hither pictures of young women laying about on what must be an intimate holiday for two have titles like Don’t You Think You Should and I’ve Done It Before. The paintings have a fresh directness that speaks of an impulsive confidence in simple feelings. Could that possibly be back in style?

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.