New York

Damien Hirst

Gagosian | 104 Delancey Street

Entering Damien Hirst’s first major major New York show, one notices at some point that Gagosian’s downtown gallery, designed by Richard Gluckman and rotely touted as “one of the most beautiful spaces in SoHo,” looks awful. Gluckman’s design, expensive and echt-’80s though it may be, never announces itself but rather recedes, so that “important” artwork may without rancor or dissension command the podium. Damien Hirst fucks this up. Rather than a chapel, Hirst transforms this elegant space into a carnival ground; we are treated to an arcade and freak shows. The pieces seem to jostle each other for space, competing fiercely for our attention. I missed the star-rife opening, but Anthony Haden-Guest reported on it in the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker: “On opening night, there were black velvet cords attached to brass stanchions outside the gallery. Among the guests were forty-plus Britons, who had showed up to support Hirst; most of them had flown over specially, including the bassist from the band Pink Floyd and a member of the roasting hot band Blur.” Plainly, this was not merely an art opening; no, an event, evocative of a dead era of capitalist and media expansion within the art world, an event whose emblem might be the more than slightly ridiculous club-world black-velvet rope. Even in the days following the overheated opening, a sense of crowd and bustle and money after its proper time hovered in the air. (Haden-Guest: “By the end of the first day, the show had sold out—cow, sow, ashtray, and all.”)

Épater la bourgeoisie is no longer a winning criterion for advanced art. If anything, it is this very attitude of courting shock that seems retardataire. But there is a version of épater that retains a nobler air. I am thinking of Diaghilev’s command, “Étonne-moi.” Astonish me. It is this quality of astonishment, the sense of seeing something one has never seen before, that Hirst’s art has transmitted, for some. This was the voltage of the 1991 Saatchi shark—cold, immobile, dead, yet still menacing. How did he do it? And this is what cannier viewers expected from the current show.

Regrettably, very little in the Gagosian show lived up to the tendered promise of astonishment. Rather than the “major major show,” Hirst gave us a sort of mini-mini-retrospective: a lot of samples of past work, old work, most of which doesn’t hold up under renewed scrutiny. The spin paintings are new, but only for Hirst. Walter Robinson did the same thing at Metro Pictures a decade ago. The only difference: Hirst has equipped some of his spin paintings with actual motors; set in motion, they accrue an additional (but spurious) layer of art-historical referentiality, Duchamp’s rotoreliefs. Moving right along: the spot paintings; Daniel Buren, Niele Toroni. Next: the giant ashtray with real butts, Party-Time, 1995; so painfully obvious in its Oldenbergian reference, to such an extent that one sniffs out a bit of contempt on Hirst’s part for an audience willing to swallow it. Of this piece, Hirst has said in an interview with Stuart Morgan published in the catalogue accompanying the show, “I like the idea of rich people buying my burned-out fag-ends.” Here we have a filmy gauze of institutional critique comique. Any number of artists have exploited similar jokes at the expense of their collectors. I regret belaboring the point, but we’ve seen this all before.

The dead-animal pieces exhibited here, This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home, 1996, and Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything, 1996, were the only “new” things on this side of the Atlantic, although strictly speaking they remain “old work” in terms of Hirst’s development. While some of the other work in this show may have been amusing in passing, these alone come anywhere near the imperative of Étonne-moi. Hirst certainly delivers on the level of formal bravura. The last few pages of the catalogue are devoted to pictures of Hirst and his assistants hauling around chunks of bovine carcasses during the fabrication of Some Comfort, partially answering the question of artistic means. Hirst’s dead-animal menagerie (he speaks of it as a zoo in his interview with Morgan) will probably survive the century as a memorable gesture at the very least. Yet even here the formal patterns Hirst deploys in this family of pieces actually remind me powerfully of a work of ’60s art, Paul Thek’s Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box, 1965. For Warhol’s Brillo box, substitute Hirst’s Juddian tanks; for Minimalist serialism, Pop serialism (they are not unrelated); for Thek’s simulated meat, the real deal. But what comes next? A dead human floating, like the not-yet-animate Frankenstein monster, in a glass vitrine? We are receding from the promise embedded in Diaghilev’s dictum, sliding back into the dull swamp of the épater of stale “avant-garde” gestures. One leaves Hirst’s show with a mounting sense of disappointment, and the show’s impact quickly fades in memory. What will be the future thresholds of astonishment?

David Rimanelli is a frequent contributor to Artforum.