Anthony Haden-Guest talks to that dotty master, Damien Hirst
Just about anybody with an active interest in Contemporary art should find it easy to connect to Damien Hirst’s dark early vitrine pieces, like A Thousand Years, in which maggots teem in a rotting cow’s head, and hatch into flies which breed and go zzzzt! in an insectocutor — it was admired by Francis Bacon — or the shark afloat in a solution of formaldehyde in The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Apart, that is, from those with a visceral distaste for the tradition of Marcel Duchamp — includng certain writers who are brilliant on what they do like (Hello, Bob!) — and of course that mighty host which has always rejected anything that stinks of Modernism lock, stock and bunghole.
The vast series of works that Hirst has had made by assistants are another story, though. Many serious artists do everything themselves — William Kentridge, Christo — and Christian Boltansky says having a payroll of assistants puts way too much pressure on an artist to produce. That said, some of the most outstanding Contemporary artists always had their work fabricated wholly or in part by assistants. There was a joke about Donald Judd that you could tell the pieces he had done himself because they were so badly made. In 1986 Jeff Koons told the Journal of Contemporary Art, ‘I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities.’
Hirst’s multinational, eleven-gallery show of 25 years of his Spot paintings has brought the issue squarely into the arena. A note by David Hockney printed on the poster for his show at the Royal Academy reads: ‘All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally,’ and this mild jab — Hockney and Hirst are friends — was speedily inflated into yet another media kerfuffle.
Originally the Spots were born of frustration. Hirst had gone to Goldsmith’s College, London, in 1986 and had been making Kurt Schwitters-esque collages. ‘I was always walking around, looking for things and picking them up and putting them in paintings,’ he says. ‘It was always to do with things found in the real world. Arranging found objects.’ He then took away the backboard and arranged the objects on the wall. ‘I thought that was a massive breakthrough,’ he says. ‘But then I remember thinking Tony Cragg had been doing this ten years ago. I was thinking I was moving forwards but actually I’d gone back. I was nowhere near up to date.’
He was sharing a studio with a fellow Goldsmith’s artist, Marcus Harvey, when he began making Spot paintings. ‘I just got rid of everything,’ he says. ‘That was a shock. I didn’t want to use canvas. I didn’t want them to be associated with making a painting really. So I just did them on the wall.
‘It would be as if a machine had come along, just rolled along the wall and printed it and gone away. So it was almost doing away with the artist as well. And then after doing, I don’t know, maybe twelve or something, painted on the wall, I tried one on canvas.’
Hirst readily acknowledges such sources as Larry Poons, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Bridget Riley. It happened that Riley had been the subject of one of my very first art interviews. Her dancing dot canvases had played a signal part in what a Life magazine editor dubbed Op Art and she had gone to Manhattan for the opening of a MoMA show.
At a meeting with one of her collectors, the garment manufacturer, Larry Aldrich, Riley was confronted with a writer and photographer from the Herald Tribune and a fabric that Aldrich had based on one of her canvases. She sued, but Op Art knock-offs were soon on bags and backs worldwide. Riley feared that Op Art was being mass-marketed to death, but that art world is as dead as Life and the Herald Trib and artworkers of today do not come naked to the world of marketing. Least of all Damien Hirst.
The idea for the group show came to him in Gagosian’s HQ gallery on Madison Avenue. He was examining the calendar that showed what was going on in the (then nine) Gagosian spaces worldwide.
‘And I was like, “What if that was all my name?”’ Hirst says. ‘I was looking to do a museum of Spots. I don’t think there’ are many artists that could do all the galleries. And only my Spot paintings really that would work and fill all the spaces. It was kind of a unique thing.’
He couldn’t have done it with the Spins? ‘I think it would be repetitive, you know. After two galleries you’d kind of lose interest. The Spots are always new.’
It would be easy to imagine that Gagosian, who had been left out of the loop when Hirst had his solo auction at Sotheby’s, London, might have dragged his feet. But he jumped at it. It took a couple of years to find a time when all the galleries were clear — there are now eleven — but the time is now.
Certain of my fellow writers have found in this Spot lollapalooza an art that reflects the world of dot-com bubbles, sub-prime mortages and hedge-fund art accumulators. Well, Hirst has made his share of low-energy art — some of it was in the auction — but I found the New York Spot shows irresistible. And the dour critical reponses remind me of past maulings of two other artists who changed the art world: Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons. What I sense, perhaps unfairly, is an aggrieved feeling of critical impotence, in the face of art supported by collectors and insititutions, that the dogs bark but the circus moves on.
Nor does Hirst himself seem too bloodied by the brouhaha. ‘I keep getting this thing about painting your own work,’ he said. ‘“You don’t paint the Spots” and all that shit. I’m doing this other stuff where I’ve got two guys in Italy carving a sculpture out of granite. So I’ve made a plaster, working in the foundry, of two figures. One of them is based on Michelangelo’s Slaves, the other on the sculpture of a female slave by Hiram Powers.
‘These two guys are amazing granite carvers and it’s like two and a half years to make one. And it’s an edition of three. So that’s ten years, with an AP [artist’s proof]. If I wanted to do it I would have to go and study for ten years. To learn how to carve granite. Fucking hell! If these guys live to be 70, they are going to be able to make twelve of these. And that’s their whole careers. And that’s your whole life gone. So you have to get people.’
Anthony Haden-Guest is Spear’s Arts Editor