A tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde; bisected bovines; a platinum, diamond-encrusted skull, complete with human teeth; an installation of live butterflies … and Kaleidoscope paintings created with thousands of dead ones. Irrefutably, since he first stormed into the contemporary art world’s collective conscious in the late 80s, Damien Hirst’s work has continued to divide opinion. His spot paintings are no exception.
Together with the ‘Medicine Cabinets’, a series of MDF cabinets filled with his deceased grandmother’s medications, the spot paintings extend back to Hirst’s time as a Fine Art Student at Goldsmith College. The earliest, created in 1986, lacked the uniformity of all subsequent works. Indeed, as the maverick student curator of Freeze — the now legendary three-part 1988 exhibition that spawned the era of the YBA’s: Young British Artists — he exhibited two spot paintings, ‘Edge’ and ‘Row’, painted directly onto the venue, a disused London warehouse’s wall. Comprising two, virtually identical grids of colored spots, they were to define what came next.
One of Hirst’s most instantly recognisable series; the spot paintings — all handmade to look machine-made, but with every dot of a unique and individual hue — have been created by both the artist himself and his assistants, working to Hirst’s precise remit. A move that Hirst has defended by stating that he is responsible for the paintings’ very existence and controls every aspect of their being, adding “…every single spot painting contains my eye, my hand and my heart.” Stemming from the early core of Damien Hirst’s spot painting series, this signed painting’s 1995 execution date makes it one of the most desirable.
But just as not all spots are as equal as they seem, so not every Damien Hirst spot painting is for sale. In 2003, one escaped the international art market to become the first painting on Mars, courtesy of the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2. A functional work of art largely based on iron oxides, it doubled as the color chart needed to calibrate the Beagle 2 Mars lander’s instrument suite, with each spot containing specific pigments that provided a reference color or wavelength signal in the detectors.
In 2011, ‘Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011’ saw the world-famous Gagosian galleries take the unprecedented step of exhibiting more than 300 works from the 25-year series across all of Gagosian’s eleven locations in New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, Athens, Geneva, and Hong Kong at once. Conceived as a single exhibition across multiple locations, Hirst is the first artist to have enjoyed such acclaim.
Whether a 40-foot canvas containing spots of one inch, or a canvas of 10 by 16 inches featuring more than 25,000 one-millimetre spots, the same underlying structure unites every work in the series: each distinctively colored dot, and the space between it and the next, must be of equal size. On initial viewing, the regimented, unified grid system is suggestive of balance and order. These are bright, happy, cohesive compositions that buzz with a delightful, calming simplicity. But, yet, despite all their mathematical rigidity, there’s something slightly, unnervingly askew.
“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,” wrote the Turner Prize winning contemporary artist. “We are used to picking out chords of the same colour and balancing them with different chords of other colours to create meaning. This can’t happen. So in every painting there is subliminal sense of unease; yet the colours project so much joy it’s hard to feel it, but it’s there.” (Damien Hirst: I Want To Spend The Rest Of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One To One, Always, Forever, Now, London 1997, p. 246.)