If nothing else, Damien Hirst is good at titles.
His best-known piece, the shark in formaldehyde, is called “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”
As I walked round the retrospective of his career to date at London’s Tate Modern, which opens to the public on April 4, a variation on that popped into my mind: “The Psychological Impossibility of Accepting Creative Exhaustion in the Mind of Somebody Incredibly Famous.”
It’s not that this is a bad exhibition. On the contrary, here is perhaps the strongest case that could be made for Hirst, well-selected and elegantly displayed. It’s just that, on the evidence assembled at Tate Modern, he hasn’t had a good new idea in 20 years.
Almost all the ingredients of his art are already there in the first couple of rooms. Essentially, Hirst brings together extreme cognitive polarities: the pure beauty of modernist art, the messy biological complexity of life (and, more particularly, death).
In the late 1980s, Hirst, now 46, was already making geometrically-abstract art out of everyday objects such as cardboard boxes painted in primary colors. A photographic work, “With Dead Head” (1991), puts a smiling, youthful Hirst side by side with his other great theme: mortality, in the form of the decapitated head of an elderly and less cheerful corpse.
His most memorable move was to put life, and death, in a box. That is, to place preserved animals inside a container much like a sculpture by the American Minimalist, Donald Judd.
The shark remains the most potent incarnation of this idea: the feral ferocity of Darwinian nature just hanging there, frozen in time and space.
At that point, around 1992, Hirst produced works that made big obvious points with tremendous visual pizzazz. This was art for an age that knew all about genetic coding and the ultimate chemical and molecular basis of existence.
All of his basic ideas make similar points. The dot paintings are about how beauty and a carefree mood can be generated by a system that depends on chance (just like, perhaps, the beauties of nature and human emotions). Simple rules dictate the result: no repetition of a color, all dots the same size.
The spin pictures, produced by drizzling pigment onto a revolving disc, do the same trick for messy expressionist, Pollock-like paintings. The butterfly pictures are living, genetically derived beauty turned into abstract art, and so on.
Hirst’s problem is that none of these points required repetition. He doesn’t like the label “conceptual art,” arguing that his works are solid and real enough. But in another sense they are utterly dependent on an idea.
Pictures of people, or landscapes or abstractions like Pollock’s or Mondrian’s, can proliferate indefinitely because they are based on something subjective, the artist’s sensibility. There’s no reason for proliferating dot paintings or animals in tanks. They are all the same, an artistic clone.
The result was that Hirst quickly tipped over into self-parody. The later rooms of the exhibition find him producing his own brand of religious kitsch: butterfly collages with gothic, church-window tops, or a white, Holy Ghost-type dove in formaldehyde.
Alternatively, he reworked his earlier ideas in a style suited to a Qaddafi mansion (spot paintings on gold, butterflies on gold). The ultimate piece of plutocratic bling-art, Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, “For the Love of God’’ (2007) is exhibited downstairs in the Turbine Hall (until June 24).
In the past decade, he also made two series of figurative paintings, one photorealist, one in the manner of Francis Bacon. Not a single example of either is included.
“A Thousand Years” (1990), is one of Hirst’s most grisly early pieces in which flies hatch on a rotting cow’s head, breed, and die on a blue insect killer.
As you leave, you feel that the galleries of Tate Modern constitute one big tank in which Hirst himself is buzzing frantically about, trying to find a way out.
“Damien Hirst” is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London, from April 4 through Sept. 9, sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk or +44-20-7887-8888.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)