When it comes to Damien Hirst and his 11-city exhibition of "The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011" at the Gagosian Galleries world-wide, I confess to being a piker. I only made it to six -- the three in New York, the two in London and the one in Paris. This means, of course, that I'm totally out of the running for the signed spot paintings awarded to those art-lovers attending the ambitious, not to say aggressive, event also unfolding in Rome, Geneva, Athens, Hong Kong and Beverly Hills, which extends through March 10 in only some venues.
Nevertheless, I saw spots. Lots of 'em. Yes, I'd say I'm a qualified spot-spotter. But who's to say how many I took in? Although it's certainly possible to do the comparatively simple math, I'm just not inclined to. Nor am I moved to figure out how many spots of how many colors Hirst has painted over 25 years of doing so. Theoretically that, too, can be reckoned, but do you count half-spots as whole spots or as half-spots and then divide by two? Whatever, the answer has to be not in the mere thousands but in the hundreds of thousands.
Clarification: As is well known, Hirst didn't paint all of them. (Did he paint any of them? I don't know.) He has employees for that, who apparently produce the assembly line of rectangular, square, circular and triangular canvases for him. According to anecdotal info, he even outsources to shops where the spot-toilers are told only to duplicate no one color in any particular size canvas but are otherwise advised to exercise their individual discretion. Let's think of these suppliers -- whoever and wherever they are -- as Johnnies-on-the-spot.
For the viewer, this poses the first of many games it seems hard not to play while looking: comparing colors that at first seem the same but are not. (An FAQ, not only to Hirst but to outfits like Pantone, Jankovic and Ralph Lauren, has to be, Is there such a thing as a finite number of colors? The answer could well be no.) There does seem to be one exception to the no-two-same-spots-per-canvas rule: the large "Controlled Substance" group, wherein a letter of the alphabet is paired with a color. No matter what size the always rectangular canvases, they look to have the same colors in corresponding positions -- e.g., A = the same brown shade, B = robin's egg blue, and so on.
Okay, so I've now looked at spots in three cities and can report that the above-mentioned game Hirst -- as a "color field" artist(?) -- kicks off is truly only one of many possibles. The others: trying to discern if there are patterns formed by the canvases' negative spaces -- faces, for instance (remember Georges Seurat and Chuck Close definitely did this in their positive spaces); if gazing at any single painting for a minute means that it registers on the eyes and is reproduced as a negative version when the eyes are shut (it does); if standing to the side of a canvas changes the shape of the dots into ovals or oblongs (it doesn't); figuring out the number of dots on some of the more spot-populated canvases, since it's surely easy to do on the many canvases featuring four or nine or, in only a single instance I located, one lone spot. Those are some of the non-Intendo games I played with the works. Other game Hirst gamesters have undoubtedly come up with their own.
Art that inspires even these responses is fulfilling at least one of art's purposes, which is to provoke viewers to think in one way or another about what they're looking at. The sheer compulsive nature of Hirst's enterprise must indicate another artist's trait -- while at the same time prompting perhaps more than one spectator to conclude the fellow is repeating himself with his endless spot-covered white canvases sporting the names of chemical compounds. Paris's "Zinc Lactate" is a personal fave of mine.
And make no mistake, Hirst's commitment has no end in sight. He's announced that turning out many more of them can be expected from him and helpers -- The Hirstettes, you might dub them, since they're something like back-up singers. But why shouldn't he, because there's another mistake that mustn't be made, which is to regard him as an artist first and a business man second? He isn't. He's the leading flim-flam man of the contemporary art scene, perhaps the all-time greatest. That alone makes him worth noting, if not entirely admiring. For some time now -- and hardly concealing his intentions -- he's been playing an ironic game of his own with (complicit) dealers and their customers. There's no missing his ever-present huge wink, when the center piece of the much-publicized 2008 auction was one of his stuffed animals in formaldehyde. That's the calf with golden horns, which sold for $18.5 million.
How can anyone get really mad at someone so forthcoming about his intentions -- despite none of these pieces evoking any intrinsic emotion. (Well, maybe a modicum of joy in the profusion of color.) Indeed, Hirst might even be congratulated for his blatant send-up of the age's devalued values -- even as he stands to make mucho mas money from the 350 (or so) works Larry Gagopsian is showing. Not to mention the adjunct merchandising, like "I [dot] DH" mugs. Furthermore, on leaving the London Sotheby's on New Bond Street, an art nut can't help noticing that the store to the immediate right is Other Criteria, Hirst's outlet for prints, et cetera. ("Other Criteria" is more of his joke about, and on, art.) I asked after a five-inch or so square box boasting nine tasteful spots that's displayed in the window and was told it represents part of an edition of fifty (or was it fifty-five?) now completely sold out. If I remember correctly, the price tags started at 950 pounds and, as there were fewer left, went to 1,560 pounds.
One last comment: An English friend of mine has been thinking about these objects and decided that for him the spots represent an ellipsis -- the ellipsis being Hirst's eventual place in the ever-evolving history of art. Is my gleefully cynical buddy on to something?