Art review: Damien Hirst at Gagosian Gallery
"Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings" has arrived in Los Angeles -- or at least that portion of "The Complete Spot Paintings" allotted to Gagosian Gallery's Beverly Hills outpost has arrived. Hirst, 46, began to produce paintings patterned with flat, enamel-colored disks against a white background in 1986. Hundreds of canvasses, most titled with pharmaceutical references, have since accumulated. Some are very large, some very small and many are sizes in-between; the assortment is perfect for walls that range from corporate lobby to apartment boudoir.
Now, despite the "complete" title, about one quarter of them are being shown simultaneously on the walls of Gagosian's 11 galleries worldwide. Twenty-three of the 1,500-plus paintings, most of them made since 2005, went on view Thursday in Beverly Hills. (There's roughly one guard for every six paintings.) Cue the wailing.
"Fraud, hoax, humbug, put-on" -- blah-blah-blah. The latest tale of Western civilization's decline, which got underway the moment Western civilization got started, will be pinned to the Young British Artist's donkey-behind.
The paintings are soulless, others will cry -- as if paintings can't credibly represent a social pervasiveness of deadened spirit.
Spots have already been done by '50s abstractionists, '60s Op artists and Washington Color School painters, the bookkeepers will harrumph. True enough -- just like Hirst's spin-paintings, "visible man" sculptures, pseudo-stained-glass windows made from butterfly wings, displays of pharmaceutical bottles and more, which have also been done by other artists in the past. Not to mention the animals pickled in formaldehyde, routine in the biology lab.
Then there's the low point of Hirst's career -- the lugubrious 2007 platinum skull encrusted with diamonds. Its dull merger of standard signs for luxury and death mostly embodies the decadence of wheezing cultural clichés.
Yet every denunciation of the spot paintings, loud or mumbled, will contribute to driving traffic to the corporate gallery. There, where the cash register is kept discreetly out of sight, the brand on display beckons.
Critic Robert Hughes -- who, in his famously entertaining prose, has decried Hirst's work as simple-minded, sensationalist and fatuous -- is the Good Housekeeping seal of this reverse-sanction, skillfully playing the popular public role of aggrieved standards-bearer. ("A Hughes label is crafted to stick fast to its victim," critic Germaine Greer once slyly observed.) The supposed decline of Western civ established Hughes as an art celebrity just at the moment when Hirst was getting started, as surely as it did the only contemporary artists whose reputations he significantly helped to secure: Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Salle and other '80s art stars, whose paintings he loathed with such amusing panache. Hirst-style denunciations of their simple-minded, sensational fatuity merely repeated and recycled the exhausted popular cliché of Picasso, Matisse and indeed all modern art as a mercenary hoax. The crowd loves that stuff.
The art market loves it too. That market is headquartered in the West's two financial capitals -- New York City (like Gagosian) and London (like Hirst). Its spread is vast. With the recent arrival of China and India, together a home to more than a third of the world's population (and, despite recent stock-market wobbles, home to more than 150 billionaires), the globalization of the contemporary art market is essentially complete.
One on-line writer claimed that, during the show's five-week run, the sun would never set on a Hirst spot-painting. A commenter astutely noted that the Pacific Ocean, which separates Gagosian's L.A. and Hong Kong outlets, is in fact too big for that to be true. Whatever the case, it's really the market, not the spot paintings, on which today's blazing sun never sets. Hirst's work pictures that new world order -- abstract, interchangeable portraits of post-millennial trade.
The spot paintings are as blank in Mumbai as in Manhattan, as empty in Dusseldorf as in Shanghai, as vacant in Buenos Aires as in Beverly Hills. They speak visual Esperanto. They look machine-made only if you see them in reproduction, rather than in person, where artistic handicraft -- pristine or sloppy -- is visible. But it's a distinction without a difference. Labored attempts at traditional connoisseurship among the spot paintings, judging some better than others, mostly make the would-be connoisseur look silly. Hirst's Conceptual project renders such discernment irrelevant.
Whether or not one likes them also doesn't much matter. (In successful portraiture, regardless of period or style, "likeness" is a given.) What matters is their recognizability as integral to the Hirst brand. This super-show, complete in its incompleteness, seals it.
Our fixation on retail brands emerged in the 1990s, with Hirst its expert art world practitioner. British cultural critic Michael Bracewell, who has written several pages of dashing folderal for the Gagosian event's glossy color brochure and catalog, charted some of that a decade ago in his book "The Nineties." (The book is "the literary equivalent of luncheon meat," one reviewer said -- or, one could add, of spot paintings.) A sample from the essay: "Beyond its balance of complexity and simplicity, color and non-color, pattern and incoherence, sense and non-sense, this [spot] painting performs a single task with restless calm, and ceaselessly: In its unknown and unknowable assertion of a single visual fact -- of colored spots, evenly spaced on a white background -- there resides an aesthetic formula that first enchants and then, if allowed, arrests the viewer's gaze."
Branding has been around for centuries -- at least since identifying marks were first burned into animal flesh. All goats look pretty much the same, and branding says "this is my goat, not your goat." In a wired world, the infinite array of digitized branding spots dance on electronic flat-screens, replacing hot pokers and the printing press. Hirst is art's global exemplar of an old reality's new form, ubiquitous in just the past 25 years.
That's not much, since the artist occupying the role is as contingent and interchangeable as the spot paintings themselves. More important, and in spite of Bracewell, almost nothing that Hirst (or his staff) has made in a quarter-century engages a viewer one on one.
But it's not nothing. Hirst is Govert Flinck, not Rembrandt van Rijn; Adriaen van de Velde, not Jacob van Ruisdael. All four of those differently gifted, 17th century artists were ushered in with the birth of the big, beautiful art market. I'd certainly rather look at Rembrandt and Ruisdael than Flinck and Van de Velde, but all four of them made paintings that now hang in the Louvre.
Good for them. Last I looked, Western civilization stumbled on.
More art reviewsfrom the Los Angeles Times.
-- Christopher Knight
Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Feb. 10. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.gagosian.com
Photos: Damien Hirst, "The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011," installation views in London, Paris and Rome; Credit: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images, Christophe Karaba/EPA and Guido Montani/EPA