It has been said that Damien Hirst is the Andy Warhol of our generation. As the celebrated bad-boy artist of our time, Hirst carries on the legacy of Warhol with sensation-seeking, factory-made work that is as much about marketing as it is about content. Certainly 2007’s exhibition at the White Cube gallery in London, Beyond Belief caused international headlines with the sale of the artist’s most notorious work - a glittering pave diamond skull aptly titled, For the Love of God (2007) that fetched a staggering £50 million (over $100 million), the most expensive piece of art ever made! An interesting sidebar – the reported cost of making the piece (executed by London Jewelers Bently and Skinner) out of 8,500 flawless diamonds encrusted into a platinum cast of a human skull was apparently around $20 million. What makes up the difference is the premium brand name of the artist and the idea. The idea of the juxtaposing diamonds – exemplifying permanence (”diamonds are forever”) and a skull – a traditional momento mori (“Remember that you will die”) puts a new “luxury goods spin” on the old-fashioned still life painting style called Vanitas, made popular by Baroque artists of the 16th century. Vanitas, Latin for “emptiness” refers to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the futility of pleasure. In traditional Vanitas paintings, skulls were used along with a sumptuous arrangement of fruit and flowers and occasionally an assortment of dead game animals. Look closely and you see that some of the luscious fruits are rotting, and flies are crawling on the table. When we recall an early work of Hirst that initially brought him to the attention of the public and power collector Charles Saatchi – a dead shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde (now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) – it is apparent that Hirst has been brilliant in finding a strategy of reinvigorating thread-bare ideas of art-making (with a dash of irony) for some time. But not only does Hirst reinvent old ideas - like Warhol, he replicates them, creating a signature or “brand.” Hirst’s latest “branded” idea – diamond skullscreens- recall Warhol’s diamond dust shoe paintings and prints as well as Warhol’s skulls. Warhol’s shoe becomes Hirst’s skull, floating across a celestial void of sparkling black background.
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