In 1994 Damien Hirst was dicing with institutional sanction, between nomination for the Turner Prize (1993) and winning it (1995). He already occupied a senior position among a generation of young British artists distinctive enough to win the laurels of the definite article. It was a diverse group that blossomed in the late 1980s, many on the fine art course at Goldsmiths, where Michael Craig-Martin and Jon Thompson had replaced specialist divisions with an emphasis on context – art historical, professional, social. Hirst’s ‘Pharmaceutical Paintings’, also known as the spot paintings, began at that time. Two were painted onto the walls of an ex-London Port Authority building at Surrey Docks for ‘Freeze’, the show that Hirst, then a second-year student, had a much feted part in organising. This was in the wake of Prozac’s hugely hyped launch, but it was an ongoing series. ‘The infinite possibilities in painting just kill me’, he says, and to this day continues to chase the idea of a ‘rainbow in a room’.
A big-time snooker fan, in Apotryptophanae Hirst cues up mortal questions across the canvas. The spot paintings, measured rows of dots, emanate from the packaging of pharmaceuticals and are titled alphabetically. Names needn’t be genuine (Tryptophan is produced commercially as an anti-depressant; links to a health scare led to an international ban in 1991). Hirst’s studio takes a quasi-scientific approach to production, aiming for machine-like detachment and accuracy. Paintings needn’t be executed by Hirst (he attributes the best to an assistant, Rachel Howard, another Goldsmiths graduate). Medical colour codes are blown up microscopically, exposing as entirely abstract the promise of respite in the limbo between birth and death. Colours are configured differently on every canvas. This is systematic randomness on an overwhelming scale, yet at the same time, as Hirst admits, ‘they’re a bit childish’ – a bit like sweets or smarties or drugs. I had my stomach pumped as a child because I ate pills thinking they were sweets. So did my brother’. Colour is an abiding narcotic: ‘I love colour. I feel it inside me. It gives me a buzz’.
In Apotryptophanae the spots, fifteen up and fourteen across, scatter the gaze, like the handfuls of pills thrown over Keith Allen in Hirst’s video for ‘Country House’ (1995) and hit by fellow Goldsmiths graduates, Blur, that was to be an anthem for Britpop. Spots are, of course, a ubiquitous tool in graphic design (the British Council logo, until 2004, was a grey and red Union Jack picked out in a square of seven spots). Yet, thanks to Hirst, the 1990s contracted a peculiar epidemic of candy-coloured measles, from wrapping paper, to adverts from British Airways’ low budget airline Go, to the exterior of the Tate Boat, designed by Hirst himself. In exploiting the juncture between art and popular visual culture, he succeeded in branding an era.
Hirst’s idiom, verbal and visual, is one of insouciant contradiction: the spot paintings, he insists, have ‘nothing to do with Richter or Poons or Bridget Riley or Albers or even Op. They’re about the urge or the need to be a painter above and beyond the object of a painting. I’ve often said that they are like sculptures of paintings. I started them as an endless series like a sculptural idea of a painter (myself).’ Apotryptophanae asks to be situated within a dot-to-dot of artistic highs and economic bubbles, a giant, continuous puzzle. Throughout his work, Hirst evinces an almost 17th-century appreciation of the beauty of cataloguing – butterflies, fish, animal carcasses, skeletons, surgical equipment, cancer cells, diamonds. Cataloguing is an interminable process: it negates the point of a final result. ‘There’s no answers, only questions, and hopefully the questions will help guide you through the darkness.’ Nowhere less so than in Apotryptophanae, whose polka dots offer a dazzling, vivacious guide to the dance of death. ‘I really think they do move, that’s why I’ll never stop doing them. They won’t fucking keep still.’
1 Richard Cork, ‘Every Story is so Different: Myth and Reality in the YBA / Saatchi Decade’, Young British Art, The Saatchi Decade (London: Booth-Clibborn, 1999), unpaginated.
2 Damien Hirst, I Want To Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now. (London: Booth-Clibborn, 1997) 250.
3 Hirst, ‘On Painting Dumb’ in I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life…, 246
5 Hirst interviewed by Sean O’Hagan, New Religion, exh. Cat. (London: Paul Stopler / Other Criteria, 2006), 9
6 Richard Cork, ‘Every Story is So Different…’, unpaginated