Damien Hirst’s spot paintings have become synonymous with his brand. The collection is instantly recognisable, widely sought after and iconic. Although what might seem a simple premise, different coloured spots on canvas, the collection reflects years of refinement and influence.
Hirst grew up with a huge respect for the prominent work of abstract expressionists, such as Pollock and Rothko. Whilst he was developing his style, he worked with a fascination and a contempt for the coldness of contemporary minimalism that he was seeing in the Tate at the time.
“I moved to London thinking I am going to change the world and revert art back to how it should be. I saw that New Art show at the Tate and just thought it’s all shit…”
His first venture into painting the spots “was loose and painted with drippy paint, not minimal at all,”. Hirst hated his initial work and immediately abandoned the free-form spots for the iconic grid we know today. His collection even had rules; no repeated colours, every spot the same size as each other. His scientific precision is extremely far removed from the boundless swathes that define abstract expressionism. It was clear Hirst was onto something new.
The epiphany that Damien Hirst reached when he started using the grid was that he was wrong about minimalism being cold and disconnected. Instead of being moved by the emotion felt by the painter as with abstract expressionism, the viewer is moved as an individual by the lack of.
The “Spot Paintings…always look happy, although there’s an unease there too because the colours don’t repeat when you expect them to.”
The spot paintings are intentionally poised to pop directly at the viewer, by using certain colours that fade and others that leap from the canvas. This allows Hirst to fully harness the effect that he’d like to have on the viewer.
This effect is perhaps reflected in the names of the pieces, named from the chemical company Sigma-Aldrich’s catalogue ‘Biochemicals for Research and Diagnostic Reagents’, it would seem that these paintings are engineered to chemically alter your emotional state. Science in art, art in science.
The collection has generated a lot of controversy over the years. This peaked when Brooklyn-based creative collective MSCHF purchased a painting for $30,000. They cut up the painting into individual spots, and sold them all at $480 each in a matter of hours.
The scandal prompted fresh art criticism, most notably from art dealer Michael Findlay who related Hirst’s work to Starbucks. The paintings ‘come, like Starbucks coffee, in three sizes…more or less interchangeable and sold as branded items . . . rather than as unique works of art,”. The concept of buying a work of art, cutting it up and selling it is offensive and obscene. But in the context of Hirst it makes sense. It threw his work into a new fluorescent light.
Hirst himself is a huge fan of the assembly line. With a team of assistants training each other to assist in his work, he has come under criticism for not producing his own art. However, the artistic workshop is not a new concept. In the high renaissance period, Raphael had a team of 50 assistants to help him with his work. From those footsteps, artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens followed. One of the most famous studios of all time, Warhol’s factory, was operating in its third iteration as Hirst began studying art.
For Hirst, the art lies within the conception not the execution of an idea. The MSCHF scandal didn’t of undermine Hirst’s work, it reinforced it. He is fascinated by the concept of manufactured art, with art that looks like its been created by a machine instead of a human. There’s even a piece of code that can randomly generate Hirst paintings.
“the grid structure allows no emotion. I want them to look like they’ve been made by a person trying to paint like a machine"
The almost-artificial precision of his work is unsettling. Hirst plays with the ideal of mass production by creating art that is almost-satisfying instead of creating the most addictive result possible. The Spot Paintings are always joyous, but in that saccharine-saturated sinister kind of sense. They’re reassuringly consistent in form, but not in hue.
“If you look closely at any one of these paintings, a strange thing happens: because of the lack of repeated colours there is no harmony. We are used to picking out chords of other colours to create meaning. This can’t happen. So in every painting there is a subliminal sense of unease: the colours project so much joy it’s hard to feel it, but it’s there. The horror underlying everything. The horror that can overwhelm everything at any moment.”
This is what makes Hirst’s work art and not wrapping paper. He comments on mass production and the commodification of art by creating something that everyone loves to look at, and by destroying the concept from the inside. It’s art that has a palpable energy, that affects the viewer in a very visceral way. The paintings live up to their potent biochemical names, even if they are somewhat artificial.
Hirst has created art that is iconic and timeless. The simplistic nature of the form doesn't convey the complexity of the full composition, luring the viewer into a false sense of security. With Hirst being a self-proclaimed ‘colourist', they are a celebration of colours as every single dot is a unique hue. It’s hard to imagine a collection such as the Spot Paintings ever becoming dated, as Hirst truly pioneered his own style of abstract minimalism.
Pleasing optimists and dissenters alike, the Spot Paintings are a innovation in science and art. With his Spot Paintings, Hirst has cemented himself as an artist who doesn’t just create art but one who created a movement.