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Spots and Sharks and Maggots and Money

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 Le Witt’s sixties 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. —J.S.

Timeline photographs: Dave Benett/Getty Images (Hirst and Norman); Jennifer Graylock/AP Photo (Color Field painting); James Leynse/Corbis (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living); Patrick McMullan (Gagosian and Hirst); Gabriel Bouys/Newscom (Pills); Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images (Hymn); AFP/Getty Images (For the Love of God); Marco Secchi/Getty Images (Dot painting)