For anyone who wants to understand why Damien Hirst is the lightning rod of his artistic generation, his humongous exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea is a good place to begin. This entrepreneurial, foul-mouthed, life-of-the-party – and yes, impressively talented – 35-year-old British artist takes for granted that an artist is an entertainer, and he is determined to make ooh-and-aah work that entices visitors to embrace the titillation and melodrama that are the bread and butter of tabloid spectacle. For Hirst, as for other Young British Artists in last year’s “Sensation,” the Brooklyn Museum show that the New York press loved to hate, protecting art’s distinctiveness from mass culture is both futile and self-destructive. Better to tap its frenzied and infectious energy and revel in its brash and voyeuristic pleasures.
Like a vaudeville performer, Victorian novelist, or stand-up comic, Hirst will do anything to hold your attention. With his gleaming swords, suspended eyeballs, and rattling Ping-Pong balls, he is eager to show devotees of game shows, lotteries, and whodunits that he’s one of them. Hirst’s bag of circus tricks includes a beach ball suspended – in effect, juggled – by air currents above roughly 70 kitchen knives, forks, and scissors rising like shark fins from a white box. His stock of narrative provocations includes male and female dummies lying under sheets on metal trolleys, with gloves and surgical equipment impatiently scattered beside them and a partially eaten cheese sandwich discarded on one body by a nurse – or was it the surgeon?
Like tabloid culture, Hirst has an unexalted view of human nature. The first work visitors encounter is Hymn, a seven-ton, twenty-foot-tall painted bronze sculpture inspired by a child’s anatomical learning toy. This is monument not to man as god, but to man as a conglomeration of physical organs and functions. Even more exuberantly bleak are two works that include gynecologists’ examination tables inside water- and now algae-filled vitrines. Radiantly colored fish sniff and wiggle their tails around clinical equipment whose weighty import, of course, eludes them. With locker-room bravado and wit, Hirst derides belief systems that delude us into thinking that humans or animals have souls, or that there is a spiritual connection between human beings and nature. It is this kind of high-spirited realism, his work insists, that makes a new and more truthful wonder and poetry possible.
Hirst does not want solace. Believing that nothing has transcendent value and that everything can be exploited, he seems startlingly obsessed, for one his age, with the temporal nature of things. Conscious of the media’s insatiable appetite for analysis and dissection, he is fixated on the beauty and coldness of surgical instruments. Aware of the tabloid – as well as the new technology’s – assault on privacy, he tells us in a variety of poignantly stark ways that none of us, even in a gallery, should forget that we are under surveillance. While understanding that mass culture may not be all it’s cracked up to be, however, Hirst still loves it as his world, and for the moment, that world, with matching perversity, loves him back.
In recent years, Al Held has made rigorous and commanding abstract paintings with geometries that dazzle the eye and mind without allowing an easy movement through their complex spaces. In Unfoldings, his new paintings at the Robert Miller Gallery, Held, 72, invites us to join him on the kinds of magical mystery tours imagined before him by painters like Matthias Grünewald and Albrecht Dürer. Aperture IV is huge – fifteen feet tall by eighteen feet wide – and breathtaking: Its rectangles and circles seem to part and welcome us onto velvety platforms transporting us to the painting’s center. What we find there, within a landscape of globes that seem as light as Chinese lanterns or Christmas-tree ornaments, yet as momentous as planets, is a tantalizing light and linked circular and cubic rings. Held’s magic is shaped by mathematics and astronomy and steeped in ancient mysteries of heaven and hell, punishment and salvation, nirvana and illusion, that for him have lost none of their urgency. These paintings have the feel of a triumph and a culmination. Held deserves a full-scale retrospective.