The idea is simple enough: monochromatic canvases dotted with orderly rows of perfectly round, glossy painted spots. But like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Technicolor Marilyn prints, Damien Hirst’s spot paintings are so stark, so strange, so consistent and so instantly recognizable that they function as stand-ins for the artist himself: big, bold, graphic signatures that program our brains to think—chant with me now—“Hirst, Hirst, Hirst.”
You’ve got to hand it to the guy. Warhol needed movie stars and a pantry cabinet to stir up this sort of effect on canvas. Hirst needs hardly anything at all.
On January 12, a sizable chunk of the artist’s spotted oeuvre will go on view at all 11 Gagosian Gallery outposts worldwide (three in New York, two in London and others in Beverly Hills, Hong Kong, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Rome). The show, which runs through February 18, marks the first time that mega-dealer Larry Gagosian has handed over his entire empire (50,000 square feet) to a single artist, never mind a single body of work. It’s hardly a selling exhibition, as the vast majority of the approximately 300 paintings included are on loan from various private collections and museums. And, like many of Gagosian’s large-scale, loan-heavy exhibitions, “The Complete Spot Paintings 1986–2011” could have very well had a place in any museum—if only there were one big enough to house it.
To start, a bit of context. Hirst made his first spot painting on a wooden board while still a student at London’s Goldsmiths College in 1986. He took the idea public at 1988’s “Freeze,” a now-legendary showcase that Hirst organized for himself and his fellow aspiring art stars at a gritty warehouse in East London. But curators and collectors took notice. Located somewhere between stripped-down abstraction and psychedelic decor, Hirst’s artwork was a sleeper hit. Astutely aware of the infinite market potential burrowed in this deceptively simple polka-dot motif, he started to churn them out.
Today there are an estimated 1,000 spot paintings of various sizes, shapes and colors in existence. Each is unique and most are painted with commercial house paint; a color is rarely repeated on a single canvas; all colors are usually distributed at random; the spaces between the spots are often equal to the diameter of the spots themselves; and each work has a tongue-twister-worthy title, plucked from an index of prescription drugs (though, back when the paintings were conceived, Hirst famously favored drugs of the less-than-legal variety). Hypnotic and disorienting, the paintings are meant to induce the sort of hazy highs one might get from these legal mind-and-body-altering substances—an effect sure to be heightened when the works are presented en masse.
Hirst has admitted to painting only the first five or so spot paintings himself. The rest have been outsourced to assistants. It’s a detail that has always drawn ire from the general public, despite strong correlations between this particular working method and the paintings themselves, which are, in nature, mechanical and detached. People tend to latch on to “something about the artist’s hand,” critic and art historian Katy Siegel confirms, regarding what she considers to be undue criticism. “But it’s just not important for this work. It may have been relatively early for a painter [to be working in this way], but for 100 years sculptors haven’t made their own work.”
Then, of course, there’s the spotted “merch.” Twenty-six years on, Hirst’s swaths of candy-colored dollops have evolved into branding tools on par with Burberry’s signature plaid or Chanel’s double C’s, appearing on everything from postcards to white-canvas Manolo Blahnik booties. Hirst has considered retiring the series, but not until he puts its self-imposed parameters to the ultimate test. At this moment, a gaggle of his assistants are toiling away on Hirst’s most ambitious iteration to date: a canvas bearing one million spots, each one millimeter in diameter and, amazingly enough, each a different color. It will take an estimated nine years to complete.
But even with a one-million-spot painting on the way, the apex of Hirst’s bespeckled output may very well be the Gagosian exhibition, in all its globe-trotting glory. The loans to each Gagosian location come from local collectors and museums whenever possible, showcasing the impressive range and diversity of Hirst’s massive clientele, not to mention the gallery’s staggering three-continent reach.
The show is also poised to join the ranks of Gagosian’s 21st-century blockbusters—scholarly, loan-based, museum-scale and museum-caliber endeavors that manage to transcend the art world and become universal must-sees, charming even the art skeptics and art averse. Gagosian is hardly the only commercial gallery that mounts noncommercial exhibitions (last fall alone, there was Acquavella’s excellent Georges Braque survey and Pace Gallery’s presentation of Agnes Martin’s “The ’80s: Grey Paintings,” both of which drew heavily on museum contributions), but few do so to quite so much fanfare. Gagosian’s “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse” show last spring had gallery-goers queuing up around the block.
Gagosian is, undoubtedly, providing a public service in presenting such ambitious shows all over the world for free, especially as museum admission fees climb and cultural institutions are increasingly strapped for cash. But these shows are intricate and expensive undertakings—consider the insurance premiums alone. Sales may not be the primary goal, but art market mechanics are still at play. “One of the functions of having exhibitions with a high level of artwork is to attract things to sell,” says Bruce Altshuler, director of the program in museum studies at New York University. “People see a show like this, and things suddenly come out of the woodwork.”
Sales, I’d imagine, are somewhat secondary to Hirst as well when it comes to this particular exhibition. Over the past few years, the artist has embarked on a bit of a rebranding campaign. For so many people, Hirst, along with fellow provocateurs Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, represented everything that was wrong with the art world pre-recession: the glitz, the glamour, the greed, that $100 million diamond-encrusted skull. It all culminated in his 2008 auction at Sotheby’s London, when Hirst put 223 artworks fresh from his well-manned studio on the block and proceeded to unload them for a total of $270 million. That same day, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.
The market for Hirst’s work has been significantly quieter ever since (though certainly still active—two works cleared the $1 million mark at auction in November). And with a major, possibly career-affirming Tate Modern retrospective opening in April, the artist seems to be grappling with his legacy. The spot-painting exhibit is a run-up of sorts to the Tate show and, per the gallery, was Hirst’s idea. There is something admittedly poetic about reuniting these inherently related works from their homes all over the world. They become not only stand-ins for the artist but globalization itself—and, in that regard, are far more handsome than the logo of any other international brand.
“The Complete Spot Paintings 1986–2011” runs January 12 through February 18. For gallery locations, go to gagosian.com.