Damien Hirst’s spot paintings may be a metaphor for something: the contemporary, globalized world, perhaps.
They are all over the place and come in endless variations. They are basically the same: equally cheery, boring, lively and meaningless. So it seems fitting that they are the subject of what might well be the world’s most far-flung exhibition.
“Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011” opened yesterday and runs simultaneously in all 11 Gagosian Galleries, from Hong Kong to Beverly Hills, via Athens, Rome, Geneva, Paris, London and New York (through Feb. 18).
The artist is offering a signed spotty print to anyone who completes the polka-dot marathon. Globetrotters must register online first and visit each of the venues.
To do so would certainly be a metaphor for modern travel: thousands of air miles, innumerable hours spent in departure lounges, all to look at a standardized product.
Hirst long ago explained the principle behind the series.
“The grid-like structure creates the beginning of a system,” he said. “On each painting, no two colors are the same. This ends the system; it’s a simple system.”
Mind you, over the years he has rung the changes with an ingenuity that verges on manic. Personally, I passed on the intercontinental join-the-dots tour, and instead dropped into the two London exhibitions at Gagosian, 6-24 Britannia Street and 17-19 Davies Street.
There the viewer is confronted with chromatic discs of all sizes. Some are massive, with just four on a huge canvas. Others are tiny, no bigger than the pharmaceutical pills they are intended to resemble.
Hirst’s original title for the series was “The Pharmaceutical Paintings.” Hence the titles -- “Butopyronoxyl” (1996), “N-T-Boc-L-a-Aminobutyric Acid” (1995) and so on, and on.
The idea is that just as today one can adjust one’s emotional state with a suitable chemical, so the spots seem to project joyous feelings. Actually, of course, they are just colors, expressing nothing.
The pigments are scattered on surfaces of all conceivable shapes and dimensions: square, oblong, triangular, irregular trapezoid and spherical. There is a wide-screen spot epic the size of Monet’s largest “water-lilies” and many others so minute they have space for only a dot and a half or a solitary spot.
Of the two exhibitions, the one at the smaller, Davies Street branch is the more engaging, since it’s devoted to spot miniatures, 48 of them sprinkled around the walls of a single, compact room. There’s something witty, as well as slightly insane about these micro, mono spots.
Part of the original point was Hirst’s belief that painting was dead as a medium, together with his urge to make pictures anyway. These were supposed to be postmortem art: semi-mechanized abstraction.
As it turned out, the demise of painting was (again) greatly exaggerated. Hirst, presumably having changed his mind, has tried -- and failed -- to make some powerfully expressive hand-executed oil paintings himself.
Once, say about 1995, his spot works seemed to catch the zeitgeist, at once energetic and nihilistic. That time has passed.
Now, they seem to capture something less desirable -- the cheery cynicism of an era that has not so much passed as collapsed.
The project of creating unlimited paintings, executed by assistants, all derived from the same formula, seems to reflect the years of the dotcom boom and subprime mortgages all too accurately. Now the atmosphere is much more sober and earnest. Perhaps it’s time for some real paintings.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)