Spots and Sharks and Maggots and Money

Photo: Andrew Testa/The New York Times/Redux

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 fifteen 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 nineties 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. Next week he’ll open 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 will be mounted simultaneously worldwide at all eleven of Larry Gagosian’s galleries. For five weeks, the sun will never set on a Hirst spot.

The British Press on Damien Hirst
“Hirst’s exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London has sputtered on pointlessly into the bitter first month of this year … If I’d known the exhibition was still on, I probably would have avoided the museum entirely.” —Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, 2010.

“The paintings are dreadful … utterly derivative of Bacon (give or take a dash of Giacometti), but they completely lack his painterly skill … The artist who has made his reputation with shock now produces works that are shockingly bad.” —Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times, 2009.

“Hirst has lived his career backwards, doing his greatest work first, saving all the repetitive stuff and the juvenilia for later.” —Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 2005.

“[In the catalogue for this show] the words most used and most superfluous are fuck and its derivatives—the fucking chair, fucking debris, fucking rectangle, fucking artist, fucking unbelievable. I take this as license, for this occasion only, to declare this detestable exhibition fucking dreadful.” —Brian Sewell, The Evening Standard, 2009.

“[The shark is] the world’s most over-rated marine organism … The idea that there is some special magic attached to Hirst’s work that shoves it into the multimillion-pound realm is ludicrous.” —Robert Hughes, quoted in the Telegraph, 2008.

“1. Are these new paintings, painted by Damien Hirst himself, any good? No, not at all, they are not worth looking at. 2. So why are you writing about them at such length? Because he is very famous. 3. And why has the Wallace Collection decided to exhibit them? Because he is very famous. 4. And why did Damien Hirst even paint them in the first place? Because he is very famous … Hirst, as a painter, is at about the level of a not-very-promising first-year art student. He is in his mid-forties.” —Tom Lubbock, The Independent, 2009.

“Let me write your review for you. I’m a cunt, this place is shit, and the artists I show are all fucked. Will that do it?” —Charles Saatchi to Adrian Searle, 2004.

Photo: Courtesy of Phillips de Pury & Company/© 2012 Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, Artists Rights Society.

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)

Spots and Sharks and Maggots and Money