OF ALL THE DAMIEN HIRST SHOWS at individual Gagosian satellites, the particular set of spot paintings chosen for the Twenty-First Street press preview on Wednesday featured the widest range of spot and painting sizes, from extra small to extremely large. This “curatorial decision” (there’s a different conceit for each of the eleven locations) nicely emphasized the gallery machine’s wishful differentiation, searching for the supposedly local and unique in the fundamentally global and repetitive condition, labeled here “Damien Hirst the Complete Spot Paintings 1986–2011.” This may or may not work as a sales strategy—they do have to sell them one at a time, I guess—but it misses the real crux of the collision of the specific and the general here. That collision is not between artworks of different sizes, colors, and dates, but between one person—the artist—and society. The cold and cavernous room, with its hysterical shifts in scale and color, only demonstrated the former’s failure to master the latter.
Allover abstraction is fundamentally monotonous. As Greenberg saw the painting he championed, the lack of a center, corners, and figure/ground relations embodied capitalism’s hyper-materiality. This “polyphonic” art was a vision of a world of either total democracy or total exchangeability, depending on your point of view. Metaphors of the horizontal and allover have only become more compelling since the 1940s, moving from Greenberg to Deleuze to the Internet; abstraction by the yard, with its tight imbrication of self, market, and materiality, still almost automatically raises interesting questions. Pollock, Stella, Richter, Hirst—none of it is ridiculous, or even nihilistic, if you’re willing to put in the time and thought. If you’re not, though, this kind of painting, found in every museum, collection, and art-ish site, makes the perfect neutral background for multinational capitalists and the aspirationally fashionable (not to mention earnestly apoplectic art scribblers). Hirst courts the friction between the bleak and the dumb, reducing expressive materiality to bare chemical compounds; his particular allover is shot through with Debord and smattered with Dick (Phillip), a degree of alienation that even Greenberg never imagined, although he and Hirst agree on art’s basic function as homeopathic. Greenberg stressed the healing; Hirst seems to revel in the poison as well.
Hirst’s career tells this story just as bluntly as his art. Like Warhol, Koons, and Murakami, he has met the supertrich, and seems torn between admiration and contempt. These artists know they aren’t any less smart than the speculators (sorry, collectors)—why shouldn’t they be the ones who get paid for their own work, as Robert Rauschenberg, Billy Al Bengston, Richard Serra and many other artists have asked? Frustrated by the money he’s made for others, Hirst wants to master his own market, running his gallery exhibitions and also his auctions. (For a lucid read of the vagaries of the actual Hirst market, see the reliably excellent Sarah Thornton.) Now, of course, as pointed out by David Hockney (who mightn’t be so quick to brag about personally painting his own recent work), Hirst isn’t the one making these paintings, but, in the parlance of the day, they are his intellectual property. In effect, Hirst, Murakami, and Koons run medium-size businesses; exploiting their workers, they are in turn exploited by speculators, who themselves make nothing but money. There’s something slightly pathetic about the artist’s ambition to join their ranks, to be a big man—a painting with a million spots! $100 million for the diamond skull!! Golly!!!—on the scale of the real assholes. But Damien Hirst is not Roman Abramovich (or Margaret Thatcher either, p.s.).
The artist’s desire to control his own market is tied up with the wish to control his own fate. The weakness of his art is its generality, but I think if you wanted to try to make something more specific of Hirst’s art, you’d look to the desperation over death and how life is spent. It’s the obvious content of the shark, the maggots, and the dead animals, as well as his flip comments about suicide and self-destruction; the paintings tackle the subject obliquely. One spot painting is easy-listening, but all together they function as a hideous allegory of the individual in society. Even the most successful individuals are eventually reviled for churning out their stuff, rejected for being themselves (however distanced or ironic that self), but even so they are not allowed to stop and do something else. Witness Hirst’s disavowal of the spot paintings before his self-engineered 2008 auction/exhibition at Sotheby’s. After feinting at something new (failed authentically expressive paintings), he’s back to playing the old stuff. That temporary cessation of the spots—whether midlife crisis–inspired self-appraisal or frank market manipulation—rhymes with Maurizio Cattelan’s current retrospective at the Guggenheim, a summing up and also putative end to his artistic life. But the playful/melancholic Cattelan seems to be honestly confronting his own limitations amid the impossible dilemma, taking control through career suicide. Despite his own “fun” persona, Hirst seems angry at the spot he’s in—unable to make resonant decisions about his own work life, he is trying to drag art down into the grave with him. The latter is a fool’s game; the diamond skull is more Ed Hardy than the end of art. Life without death, a kind of wan immortality in the form of the endless spot paintings, feels equally empty.
Not inaccurately, art comedian Hennessy Youngman pegs Hirst as Bono; fair enough, they probably share vacations and stock advisers as well as sunglasses. And we can see Bono making the endless circuit of concerts, playing on and on, not meaning any of it, just getting bigger (like Hirst’s recent spots), trying to run the joke rather than be it. But the difference is that Bono always sucked. I want, perhaps foolishly, to think that there also lurks within Damien Hirst a little John Lydon (the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten), who yelled during a PiL concert I saw almost twenty years ago, “How many of you idiots bought the fucking T-shirt?” Because otherwise, there is something (and here I’m going to get a little weird and project-y) sad about seeing the artist pinned against one of those spot paintings as photographers fire away; is this really what it looks like to master one’s fate? It seems silly to feel sorry for successful artists, or for rich people in general, but in the end, there is no attitude to strike that can beat the house. Or, to put it another way, no one gets out of here alive.