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.