Damien Hirst is 35 years old, and since 1988, when he organized and starred in the legendary exhibition of young British artists titled "Freeze," he has been what one London critic felicitously called the "hooligan genius" of British art. The hooligan genius belongs to artistic mythology, but we have not had an example of one in the visual arts since perhaps Jackson Pollock, and Hirst's hooliganism is evidently of the same ruffian order we associate with the English soccer fan–he even composed an anthem for that brawling brotherhood in which the only identifiable word is "Vindaloo." There is a photograph of him glowering in a meadow, wearing shorts, low boots, an open jacket; and we cannot but wonder about the fate of the cow standing behind him, considering that Hirst has been responsible for having some of her sisters sliced into sections, immersed in formaldehyde and distributed in no particular sequence in so many glass tanks. Such works, like the affecting lamb or the bisected pig in last year's "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, have touched off a debate in ethics as to whether it is a better fate for an animal to wind up as a work of art when its destiny would otherwise be the dinner table–or, in the case of the magnificent tiger shark that was also on view in "Sensation," as dog food.
Whatever the outcome of these disputes, Hirst uses death as a way of expressing thoughts about death. "His most celebrated work," according to a press release, "has never shied away from the terrible beauty that lies in death and the inevitable decay contained in beauty"; Hirst himself, on a web page, is quoted as saying, "I am aware of mental contradictions in everything, like: I am going to die and I want to live forever. I can't escape the fact and I can't let go of the desire." The title of one of his most controversial, and somehow most sublime, works–the tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde solution–is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. "It is possible to avoid thinking of death," the novelist Leo Litwak recently wrote me, "but that would require me to stop thinking." The work is very frequently shocking, which is the hooligan side of his genius. Shock is a means, however, of advancing the Heideggerian reflections on death that have driven him from the beginning, very much in evidence in the exhibition of Hirst's work now on display at New York's Gagosian Gallery (555 West 24th Street).
Hirst did a photograph in 1991 called Self Portrait With Dead Head, which perhaps only a hooligan would have thought of. It shows his vividly youthful face, grinning merrily at the viewer, while his head is placed, literal cheek by literal jowl, with what appears to be the decapitated head of what had been a much older man. Perhaps any such head would be frightening, but this looks as if its owner had been frightening while alive: It is like the convict's head in a particularly scary film version of Great Expectations. The photograph could scarcely be in worse taste: It violates our sense of the dignity owed the dead, whatever they may have deserved from us when alive, and it stirs some primordial, ill-understood sense of fittingness. Perhaps only the very young would be sufficiently without squeamishness to pose intimately with a cadaver. However, once one's disgust is overcome, as much with the artist as with his subject, one realizes that he has created an unforgettable image of life-and-death and an artistic path that takes us through the body of his work from that moment on.
The theme of death, at least as expressed through animals and animal parts, is muted in "Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results, and Findings," as Hirst has titled the Gagosian show. It is, however, obliquely implied in the title Concentrating on a Self Portrait as a Pharmacist, this time a painting of–and I assume by–the artist. It is a fine, expressionist picture that shows the skeptics not only that yes, Hirst can paint, but that even in an earlier period of art, when painting was art's primary vehicle, he would have been a marvelous artist. It is, however, not on the wall. It is on an easel, from which a white coat hangs down. Painting of this sort being so old-fashioned a medium, one infers that this is an artist's smock. In fact, it is a laboratory coat, of the sort doctors and pharmacists wear. Easel, painting and lab coat are enclosed in a glass booth, itself set into a large vitrine. Outside the booth, hence unreachable by the artist in the act of painting, is a taboret with brushes, rags and tubes of paint.
Pharmacognosy–to use the old-fashioned word–has obsessed Hirst for nearly as long as death has, and in the present political preoccupation with prescription drugs, the exhibition could hardly be more topical. In 1992 Hirst created an installation specifically titled Pharmacy–which, according to the label, contains "medicine cabinets, desk, apothecary bottles, fly zapper, foot stools, bowls, honey, glass. Overall dimensions 28'7'' 22'7'' (variable)." It is like a play drugstore for a privileged child. In "Sensation," there were several shallow vitrines arrayed like medicine cabinets, with vials and boxes aesthetically arrayed. These were used as decorative items in the instantly fashionable restaurant Pharmacy, which Hirst opened in London in 1997. The present show is like a museum of pharmaceutical displays. There is, for example, a wall cabinet containing "8000 individually hand crafted model pills"–though I am insufficiently drug literate to be able to identify any of them. The work is somewhat mysteriously–unless the pills modeled are stupifiants–called The Void. There are in addition two quite large wall cabinets with arrays of surgical instruments, anatomical models, skeletons, basins and the like. One of them is called, somewhat irreverently, Stripteaser. Perhaps it refers to the skeletal condition in which we are stripped of our flesh by the various items of surgical cutlery (in another room, one finds a glass cabinet displaying several animal skeletons, titled Something Solid Beneath the Surface of Several Things Wise and Wonderful). There is an overall tone of nervous merriment, of giggling in the face of our mortality. I can imagine a hooligan joke about the stripteaser who peels the flesh off her bones and, now a skeleton, capers about the stage grinning at the patrons, oblivious of the fact that there are no erotic skeletons. One of the works in the show consists of a skeleton on a cross of glass panels, above whose skull a pair of eyes (painted Ping-Pong balls) bobbles in a spirited danse macabre on what I guess are airjets. It is called Death Is Irrelevant.
The show brings together in a way both sides of Hirst's persona, concerned respectively with death and with healing. I got an understanding of one genre of his paintings, for example, that, superficially at least, doesn't seem to have much to do with the preserved carcasses of animals. These are arrays of dots, regularly arranged–like pills–in neat rows and columns. They are painted with glossy household enamel on canvas, and it feels as if Hirst uses the entire spectrum of colors made available by the manufacturer. There is, despite the orderliness of the matrix, no chromatic pattern that I could discern: It is as if the choice of colors were randomly determined, except that Hirst has said that no two hues in a given painting are identical. So there would be no way of projecting the pattern past the edges: There are no "repeats." The paintings have the all-over patterning of wallpaper (a similar thing used to be said of Mondrian). As art, they have the look of Minimalist paintings of a few decades ago, less austere than the dot paintings done by Robert Irwin but generated by comparable imperatives. A recently published dictionary of twentieth-century artists describes these works as "plumbing the repetitious possibilities of painting," as though they were merely formal exercises "produced in seemingly endless series by Hirst's assistants." I previously saw very little in these paintings, nor could I see any way of connecting them with the rest of his work, viewed as a collective meditation on death.
Recently, however, I began to pay attention to their titles. One of the paintings in "Sensation," for example, was called Argininosuccinic Acid. A chemical involved in the synthesis of arginine, argininosuccinic acid is one of several amino acids used to form proteins, fundamental components of all living cells. Several paintings in the show are named after cobras–Naja Naja, Naja Naja Atra, Naja Melanoleuca, Naja Flava, Naja Haje and so on. Naja Naja is the asp, the venom of which is legendarily deadly. According to an ancient authority, the Egyptians employed a form of relatively humane execution by means of asp bites, and it must have been with Naja Naja that Cleopatra committed suicide. There are antivenins, made of venoms, however, and one wonders if Hirst has in mind the idea that certain toxins can generate their own cure. Digging around a bit, I encountered reference to the fact that he may actually believe that these paintings have specific pharmacological properties. I was unable to see any relationship between the (not well understood) chemistry of snake venom and the formal properties of the dot paintings–but in any case, the idea that painting is a form of pharmacology makes it a literal possibility that the artist can be a pharmacist. It is not necessary for viewers themselves to share this belief, but it strongly connects these otherwise incongruous paintings with the rest of the work. And it incidentally underscores the fact that formalism alone will not get you very far in art criticism.
The first thing one encounters upon entering the gallery is a colossal figure, twenty feet high and weighing six tons, in luridly painted bronze. It monumentalizes a toy, called Anatomy Man by its manufacturer and designed so that children can learn the shapes and placement in the body of the major organs. "I loved it that it was a toy," Hirst told an interviewer. "I wouldn't have done it with a teaching hospital one." The fact that the immense figure (titled Hymn [= Him]) is an enlarged educational toy underscores the element of play that I felt was in the 1992 Pharmacy and in Death Is Irrelevant. A work called The History of Pain is a high white box, with a number of knife blades sticking up, threatening a bleached beach ball, suspended above them. It is, I suppose, an allegory of mind and world, the former rising and falling on a jet of air in the spirit of a striptease, as the viewers wait for the ball to fall onto the knives to be shredded. Its message–the ball as consciousness, the world as knife blades–may be somewhat obvious, but I find it difficult to think of another artist concerned to deal with the concept. It is this readiness to take on the questions of the ages that causes my overall admiration of the Young British Artists, even if they cross the line in sometimes trivial, sometimes juvenile ways.
There is nothing obvious, trivial or juvenile about two of the works, titled respectively Love Lost (Bright Fish) and Love Lost (Large River Fish). As with Concentrating on a Self Portrait as a Pharmacist–like most of the works in the show–these are installed in very large vitrines or aquatic tanks. Each of the Love Lost tanks contains the furniture of a gynecologist's examining room, with stirruped tables and surgical instruments. In one there is a computer, in the other, more humanly, a clothes stand. The furniture in both is submerged, and fish swim freely, as in aquariums. The works are inevitably mysterious, as there is no clear narrative that connects the examination equipment with the water and the fish, nor is there any available allegory one can easily seize. Any interpretation that occurs to me seems instantly superficial, so I think it best to let the mystery stand. There is, however, one truth worth considering, which is that both works are extremely beautiful, and while I do not know how to connect beauty with (what I suppose is) abortion, it seems to me that one possibility is that beauty heals, as the artist Robert Zakanich once said to me. There is something universally aesthetic in watching the movements of fish through water, like dancers through space. But in Love Lost, this beauty is somehow related to, well, lost love, embodied in the abortionist's setup, and the idea may be that the beauty heals the pain of loss, or that it can. It at any rate suggests a meditation on the pharmacology of beauty. What cannot avoid notice, however, is fish excrement drifting down, beginning to soil the immaculate equipment; and we know, unless steps are taken, that the water will grow murkier and murkier, and the fish will die, and beauty will vanish. Water is not formaldehyde. The beauty cannot be preserved. And the fragility of beauty is like the fragility of life.
The title of the show–"Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results, and Findings"–is also the title of one of its works, which consists of two vitrines, each with noisy blowers and a small population of Ping-Pong balls. It seems a sullen, pointless work, and one cannot but wonder how it connects with the title, which could be a postmodern name for an anthology in the philosophy of science. The work is like one of those devices with which lotteries are decided, where each ball has a number. Here the balls are unmarked, rise and fall meaninglessly, without deciding anything. If I see it as suggestive of anything, it is by way of a pessimistic answer to the meaning of life. Luckily, the desire to go on living does not depend on getting deep answers to our question of why.
In an interview conducted in 1996, Hirst was asked to make an Artist's Statement. His first answers were yob irreverences, not worth reprinting here. But then, abruptly, he tells the interviewer that he likes a piece by Bruce Naumann, of which he gives an exceptionally sensitive reading:
It's a neon sign that's a spiral that goes into nothing in the center and you have to tilt your head when you read it and it says "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths," and you go "Oh, yeah, great" and then you go "Oh god" and there's nothing there.
Naumann did this work in 1967, as a sort of window or wall sign. I had always taken the work as a piece of Naumannian irony, but it is clear that this is not Hirst's attitude. It never occurred to me that part of the meaning of the work is that it gives no answer to the question of which are the mythic truths. If one were to see it in a show of Naumann's work, and look at the pieces it is surrounded by, one would have to say that Naumann is not a true artist by his own definition: His pieces are all more or less jokes, which makes this work a joke. I had not considered the spiraled words just ending in empty space to mean: There are no mythic truths, there is only nothing. As an artist's statement, "Oh god, there's nothing there" is pretty deep.
Whatever your cultural agenda, if you're in New York between now and mid-December, then, you owe it to yourself to pilgrim up, down or over to Chelsea, to look at the spectacular exhibition of Hirst's art in the scarcely less spectacular setting of the remodeled Gagosian Gallery. It is a little early in the twenty-first century to speak of high-water marks, but it's difficult to believe that Gagosian's space–23,000 square feet, the size of a small museum–will soon be superseded; and if a body of work comes along that in ambition and achievement puts Hirst in the shade, we are in for a remarkable era. I cannot imagine what it would be like to afford, let alone live with, one of Hirst's pieces, but someone has to be paying for works of this sort, each of which requires a substantial capital investment in hardware. And I am again overwhelmed by the generosity of the gallery system, which opens its doors to the general public free of charge. Free admission to the other high arts are rare and uncharacteristic. The walls at Gagosian have even been decorated with a tasteful green graph-paper motif, to imply the atmosphere of a natural history museum that Hirst's pieces seem to create. The show really feels, however, like a toyland, a Halloween extravaganza with something for everyone. Take the kids.
In memory of Saul Wineman.