December 2, 2021

Damien Hirst, 522 West 21st Street, NYC

I agreed to review Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings at Gagosian on 21st Street, NYC. To my surprise, I liked it. This is the smallest of three New York installations—fourteen paintings arranged in the big, single-room loft space. The works range chronologically from 2001 (Urea—13C, which is the largest and, also, my favorite, at 118 x 478 inches) to several that were painted in 2011. The paintings hang side-by-side and look pretty great together—five square canvases and nine rectangles with colored spots arranged as if on a grid in random unrandomness. Unlike Hirst’s early Spot Paintings, these were all painted by assistants and the execution seems pretty perfect.  Myristyl Acetate, 2005 is composed of nine 36-inch spots. The spots in L-Isoleucinol, 2010-2011, are only 1 mm apiece. Light plays off the gloss paint surface so that different spots—many of them in the tonal range of barley candy–stand out as you move across the room. The little canvases look silvered from a distance. At the right time of day, the big spots reflect down on the polished surface of the gallery floor.

Reviewers call his spots soulless, dead, manipulative, boring, derivative, formulaic, commercial, monotonous, tasteless, and so forth. A lot of nonsense has been said and written about them and this includes the quote from Hirst on the Gagosian press release: “I was always a colorist…” Simply not true. Hirst has not always been a colorist! If he’s always been anything it’s the art world equivalent of a rock star with something from P.T. Barnum, and the Kardashians mixed in. Over the years he’s said outrageous things and profited from sensational stunts. I’m not a big fan of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living—his vitrine with a shark preserved in formaldehyde—it’s not my kind of thing, but I can’t argue with his self-defense: “I think anything done super well is art.” Something about this exhibit reminds me of the way rock musicians can lose the anger they started with and the music becomes less edgy and a little happy. Cobain noticed this. I’m not sure that’s all bad.

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