View of “Damien Hirst,” 2012. Floor: Mother and Child Divided, 1993/2007. Walls, from left: Iodomethane, 1999–2001; Furegrelate, 2006. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates.

View of “Damien Hirst,” 2012. Floor: Mother and Child Divided, 1993/2007. Walls, from left: Iodomethane, 1999–2001; Furegrelate, 2006. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates.

Damien Hirst

View of “Damien Hirst,” 2012. Floor: Mother and Child Divided, 1993/2007. Walls, from left: Iodomethane, 1999–2001; Furegrelate, 2006. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates.

WHATEVER ONE THINKS of its architecture, strolling across the London Millennium Bridge on an early spring morning is an agreeable way to start the day, and I arrived at Tate Modern feeling clearheaded and not a little excited. The occasion was a retrospective devoted to the art of Damien Hirst (the first in Britain since the 2003 Saatchi survey that Hirst publicly disavowed), and I was eager to reconsider the contribution of an artist whose work I have never liked but at the same time have never been able to dismiss.

At opening hour, the timed-ticketed crowds snaked though the Turbine Hall, an exhibition space coextensive with today’s expanded audience for contemporary art, a public it sometimes seems Tate and Hirst conspired to invent. Inside the galleries proper, the queue was repeated before the show’s hothouse center chamber, containing the long-unseen In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991, but such minor inconveniences did little to undercut the general high spirits. Having sacrificed couch and football for the redemptive challenge of art, the crowds were clearly prepared to suffer for culture. “Mummy, it is very mean,” commented a worried-looking tot, transfixed from stroller vantage by the rotting cow’s head and swarming flies in Hirst’s notorious A Thousand Years, 1990. Several rooms on, a basic bloke (not so unlike the artist himself—minus the manor in Gloucestershire, presumably)—waxed wistful before Black Sun, 2004, an enormous tondo encrusted with more (dead) flies: “I went to school with ’im, you know.” I could all but see the cogs turning behind his eyes as he tried to do the math: “Is this, when all is said and done, the art of our time? Well, it must be—’tis the Tate, after all.”

My own ambivalence about Hirst runs long and deep. Back in 1992, as a junior editor at this magazine, I commissioned an essay introducing his work in deference to a trusted contributor who felt it a must, though I will admit (I am only human) to snubbing the YBA in a public drinking place soon after to make up for having reluctantly serviced his rising star. That was then; today Hirst’s world dominance makes me absurd. In fact, seventeen years on, I conceded defeat and included a reprise of his single-artist-auction-as-artwork, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, 2008, in an exhibition I cocurated for, as it happens, this very museum. The hypothesis of that show—“Pop Life: Art in a Material World” (2009–10)—was that the mechanisms of the art machine (and of publicity more generally) had, in recent times, been used by artists as their mediums, much like paint or marble. We traced the impulse from father Andy’s “Business art” exploits though the 1980s and into the present, where Hirst’s three-ring Gesamtkunstwerk was as pure a test case as one might hope to find.

But purest is not always bestest. If one is willing to take Andy at his word, to own that the “best” art today is Business art, the question necessarily becomes how and why some Business art is better then other Business art and, furthermore, how (this is often the make-or-break point) such artful manipulations of market and media relate to the old-fashioned art object as such.

But first, the show. The curators—Ann Gallagher and Loren Hansi Momodu—(and/or the artist) have been too alert to ignore the exploits of Hirst the impresario, and it would be disingenuous to criticize them for succumbing to the pressure implicit in the retrospective project, whereby the art object proper is separated from the everything else (plenty, in Hirst’s case), in the interest of patinating the newly minted master status of the artist at hand. To the contrary, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever was afforded pride of place, and the event was rightly foregrounded, which is to say, billed as an event-as-artwork rather than simply as a cherry-picked selection of the best objects from the auction. The real pop collaborations, in the form of videos for bands like Blur and U2, are also afforded wall space. On the other hand, the curators have been cautious (or maybe just shrewd?) in omitting the full body of Hirst’s slightly soft-focus photo-based “Fact” paintings (were there words, one wonders, between artist and curators over this decision, or did Hirst go along with or even initiate the plan?), and they have shown their good taste in repressing the recent Francis Bacon–cum–Ross Bleckner nocturnes. When I first saw this body of work at London’s White Cube in 2009, I felt sure Hirst was taking the piss out of us, they were so surpassingly dreadful. (For a happier outcome vis-à-vis Hirst’s fraught relationship to the art of painting, see the Pharmaceutical—i.e., “Spot”—Paintings.)

The show is, all in all, thoughtfully hung and judiciously selected. The lead room of juvenilia, for example, includes, along with several hopelessly studentish efforts, an early “painterly” Spot painting; a lineup of colorfully painted pans (Granny Clampett meets Haim Steinbach?); a Donald Judd–like Formica box that, when opened, proves to be a prefab kitchen cupboard (this was new to me and suggestive); and, finally, the famous photo of the youthful artist’s smiling visage literally cheek by jowl with a corpulent, frowning decapitated head, exhibited in the form of the artwork into which Hirst retrospectively turned it (With Dead Head, 1991). Take the four as a unit, and they prophesy the career, particularly the jockeying with Minimalism and Conceptualism that links Hirst to so many disparate artists of his generation and the one preceding it. (Think of a sheep inside a Sol LeWitt, to paraphrase the artist’s own quip.)

The Medicine Cabinets of 1989, each titled after a song from the Sex Pistols’ sole studio album, stand out. (Ten of the original twelve are on view at the Tate.) They speak of that eureka moment in so many artists’ careers, when, following a protracted period of indecisive struggle, the art student turns into—Damien Hirst! And they do feel definitive. So does The Acquired Inability to Escape, 1991, a glass and steel box in two compartments: one, the larger of the pair, housing an office chair before a tabletop with a pack of Silk Cuts, a lighter, and an ashtray full of butts; the other entirely empty but somehow claustrophobically compressed. Hung adjacent to Dead Ends Died Out, Examined, 1993, a vitrine with shelves displaying neatly arranged rows of cigarette butts, the work (and the room) seemed to me the exhibition’s sleeper highlight, revealing an old-soul side of the artist I had not realized existed. To contradict what I suspect is the consensus, Hirst’s butterfly hatchery–as–painting machine, In and Out of Love, while fun, is finally daft—but this has nothing to do with the curation.

View of “Damien Hirst,” 2012. Floor, from left: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991; A Thousand Years, 1990; Away from the Flock, 1994. Walls, from left: Lullaby, the Seasons, 2002; Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Right), 1991; 11 Sausages, 1993. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates.

My only real quibble with the show’s presentation comes with Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, where the individual pieces, such as Fragments of Paradise, 2008, and Judgement Day, 2009, are hung atop wallpaper depicting the rows of diamonds (I mean cubic zirconia) that feature inside these vitrines. I can sympathize with the impulse to bring the auction works together, and thus to underscore that the sale (art and event) must be understood as a totality that constitutes the work (and I appreciate the nod to Warhol’s use of wallpaper), but the effect is visually flat and undercuts the bling factor of the shiny boxes of sparklers, which are singularly disarming when exhibited on a white wall, their art-objectness—their fetish quality as such—being a decisive part of the equation. But no installation gimmick can compete, of course, with the spectacle of the moneyed mobs at Sotheby’s mid-September 2008, the stock market tanking in the background. Like it or not, the heart beats a little faster as one comes to grips with the fact that the artist roped all this art and commerce together under one signature—which brings me to the best thing in the retrospective.

The work in question doesn’t show up on the checklist, and yet it was, without a doubt, the exhibition’s showstopper. I am referring to “The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986–2011,” a renegade retrospective masterminded by the artist and his agents that brings together Hirst’s celebrated Pharmaceutical Paintings—indeed, more than three hundred of them (a mere fraction of the number he has made). The show, which opened simultaneously on January 12 in all eleven branches of the Gagosian Gallery, from Beverly Hills to Hong Kong—just as the advance press for the London retrospective was heating up—amounted to a Business art tour de force that amplified and undid the relatively buttoned-up Tate event to come. (“Damien Hirst” opened April 4.) As one stands in front of any of the several evacuated canvases on view at Bankside, the tides of commerce and publicity on which these mute ciphers surf the art globe splash around one’s skull, filling these empty vessels back up to the brim. Thanks to the column miles of press this initiative racked up, fresh in the minds of many viewers—and fully vivid in mine for the first time—was the clip at which the artist has been printing money in the form of spotted linen since nearly the outset of his career. I am uncertain what Hirst customers are seeing when they look at these paintings. There is, as with nature or John Cage, a reliable Zen pleasure in random effect and arbitrary system (no color is repeated within a canvas, all choices are made by assistants, etc.), and there is a thrill in the thought of an artist dispersing the equivalent of a stack of cheerfully patterned dishtowels in the hallowed halls of art and thereby claiming the proceedings therein as his own (especially since, in my experience, the art-questing public does not typically countenance this degree of nihilism/realism in its trophies). Maybe it is simply that the crisp design reminds us of our iPads.

For me, the paintings do not do much at all until one recalls the total number he has painted (actually, with a few exceptions, has had painted)—roughly fourteen hundred—a factoid that renders transparent their relationship to the new global gallery model that Gagosian emblematizes and that, much like Turbine Hall, seems made to the scale of the artist’s exorbitance. Indeed, the vision of Earth planted with flags that is the event’s afterimage becomes fully vivid via a carnivalesque flourish that counts as my favorite facet of the show: I am talking about the Gagosian Complete Spot Challenge, wherein any (registered) fan who managed to visit all eleven venues would receive a personalized, limited-edition “Spot” print. More than a thousand people registered. That the first winner, a certain Valentine Uhovski, former Russian child star and cocreator of the once feared (now shuttered) website Socialite Rank, completed the Challenge in a record eight days, logging thirty-two thousand air miles in the process, plumps up a fact-trumps-fiction subnarrative of the show that says at least as much about the reach of Hirst’s work as the spectacle of cowed throngs groping for meaning among the polka dots.

“The Complete Spot Paintings” is, of course, only the latest in a sequence that includes Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, that 111-million-pound-grossing Sotheby’s imponderable, and For the Love of God, 2007, the diamond-encrusted skull (with real teeth!), here displayed in a softly lit enclosure at the heart of that vastness otherwise known as the Turbine Hall. Viewable from the mezzanine/bridge, the spirit-of-the-beehive bustle around the vanitas’s display becomes a facet of the spectacle, with its crown-jewels vibe and Tower of London lines, but it is the Spot Challenge that, from without, reveals Hirst to be the puppet master on the other end of the strings. The museum may have done its level best to tart up Britain’s most exportable artistic bête noire as a proper midcareer master, no doubt with the artist’s blessings (I don’t want no retrospective—actually, yes, I do), but the ready-made pr opportunism and reality-TV trappings of the “Complete Spot Paintings” (and Challenge) allowed Hirst to have it both ways at once. He has remarked, “Art’s popular. That’s my generation. It wasn’t before . . . isn’t that an awesome thing?” and indeed, viewed through the Complete Spot Challenge, the mechanisms Hirst activates to parlay his art fame into general fame (read: tabloid celebrity) and back again into museum-admissions prowess are altogether remarkable, awesome, even.

The Tate was late with Hirst (and with his YBA colleagues more generally). Britain was there, the arts council was there, but the Tate was late. Perhaps the museum demurred for the same reasons I did? Whatever the case, we’re all here now! And let’s face it, do we really have a choice? Imagine the museum’s director explaining to his board that this Olympic-season turnstile rattler would be going to the Hayward because the artist is not his cup of tea. Hirst has us all by the balls, a fact of art life that is hardly incidental to his work.

As bowled over as I am by this tightrope achievement, my truest feeling about Hirst’s oeuvre crystallized in the dark as I sat on the museum’s floor and reviewed the collaborations with pop stars like Bono and Damon Albarn—and Hans Ulrich Obrist! Blur front man Albarn’s spritely ditty “Country House,” offered from a bubble bath, has its place in the world, but some pop cuts deeper than other pop, just as some Pop art (yes, Koons) cuts deeper then other Pop art (alas, Hirst). Thomas Crow, the artist’s too-good-to-be-true apologist—except in the win-win world of Hirst—makes a case for The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 (aka the shark in the tank), as the logical one-upping of Koons’s 1985 “Equilibrium” series: “If Koons had suspended a basketball in a pristine tank,” Crow wrote in these pages (“Marx to Sharks,” April 2003), “why not an embalmed man-eating shark? It was bigger, better, and scary in the bargain—irresistible bait to the tabloids’ constant hunger for monsters and menaces.” While his point perfectly gauges the terms at stake, I would argue there are good reasons why “Equilibrium” is a contemporary masterwork while the shark in the tank remains precipitously close to the kind of “Awesome, dude!” destination decor I associate with boutique-hotel lobbies and elevators.

For me, the decisive difference between these works begins with Koons’s formal precision, which dictates that the means live up to the magic. The replete illusion—whereby the basketball, that wholly branded modern archetype, is suspended in equipoise apart—invites us to dilate on sporting ritual in its ancient origins and its contemporary, mass-mediated incarnation, to compare the aspirational nature of athletic achievement with the social mobility of the self-invented art star. The shark in the tank has momentary drama, but the visible guy wires are more suggestive of natural-history dioramas than of Jaws—a work of popular art whose pitch Hirst’s would need to match to earn Crow’s claim—and even then it couldn’t muster the poetry of the sporting logo’s right now meeting the oceanic deep time of its surround. Similarly, when it comes to the performative event—take, for instance, Hirst’s auction—the whole remains a tad connect-the-dots. That work/event, like Koons’s “Made in Heaven,” 1989–91, consists of a suite of objects buoyed into the world on a wave of pluck and publicity, and, as such, the proceedings offered an appreciable carnivalesque return; yet Hirst’s effort finally pales in comparison to the profound strangeness of “Made in Heaven”: The notion of performing (and memorializing) one’s nuptials, of riding the coattails of the relatively tawdry renown of one’s porn-star bride, first to tabloid self-evidence and then to artistic immortality, remains an odyssey of magical improbability.

Hirst claims to be making art for “people who haven’t been born yet.” Whether this prediction comes true remains to be seen, but a retrospective at the Tate is certainly a step in the direction of immortality, and one wonders whether, by the time our strollered critic is grown, Hirst’s art will look less mean than true. Andy, after all, once seemed a pretty nasty piece of work—by the 1980s, a money-printing has-been, even—and now, to me at any rate, the art life he left behind feels as nuanced as Proust and as deep as the deep blue sea.

As for Hirst? Anything, I suppose, is possible . . .

“Damien Hirst” remains on view at Tate Modern through Sept. 9.

Jack Bankowsky, Artforum Editor at Large, is a critic and independent curator.