You’ve got to be kidding. Damien Hirst – unaccountably acclaimed for preserving dead animals (including a shark, a sheep and a cow) in formaldehyde in the name of art – is getting unaccountably acclaimed again, this time for rows of colored circles not even painted by him. His assistants paint them. The work is called – what else? – “spot paintings.”
You may remember all the recognition Hirst got for his dead animal work, including England’s coveted art award, the Turner Prize and reviews like this from NYTimes art critic Michael Kimmelmanabout a SoHo exhibit of hacked up cow carcasses:
“The show left me somehow, unexpectedly, smiling … It’s a sense of something vivifying beyond, or besides, his infatuation with death and dead animals, that makes Mr. Hirst’s work likable, and makes his art different from the merely slick and chilling …”
It didn’t leave me smiling. How about you?
Come to think of it, what can anyone expect from Hirst, who famously said, “I think suicide is the most perfect thing you can do in life.”
Now New York’s Gagosian Gallery is mounting Hirst’s “The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011” – not just in New York, mind you, but simultaneously in each of Gagosian Gallery’s eleven locations in London, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, Athens, Geneva, and Hong Kong.
Like I say, you’ve got to be kidding.
It’s not that abstract art is a joke. In the words of Abstract Expressionist founder Robert Motherwell, “Most painting in the European tradition was painting the mask. Modern art rejected all that. Our subject matter was the person behind the mask.”In other words, abstract art reflects that part of life beyond the observable.
A circle in a painting may have, as Kandinsky believed, greater significance than the human head. But when it’s repeated ad nauseum as in Hirst’s work, shower curtains come to mind. Or beach towels.
Abstract sculptor John Chamberlain, known as the crushed-car sculptor, put the human head across with parts of wrecked cars that he crumpled and welded in his “Colonel Splendid.” Painted in the navy blue of a military uniform, full with a shiny brass area, it puts you in mind of a Napoleon-type headdress. Clearly, abstract art can evoke more than a shower curtain.
Ringling Museum’s Chamberlain sculpture “Added Pleasure” makes the point. A lushly painted chromium plated steelwork, it suggests a bouquet of flowers that narrows at the bottom and blossoms out up top. Ergo, “Added pleasure.”
Chamberlain’s sculpture does not ostentatiously proclaim itself as art, and unlike Hirst’s spot paintings, it talks to you. As he has told me, “My work is done through the nervous system.”
Maybe that’s why Hirst’s paintings seem so mute and meaningless. Chamberlain had a hand in his work and Hirst didn’t.