No Love Lost, Blue Paintings
The Wallace Collection
October 14, 2009 - January 24, 2010
Hertford House, London
Damien Hirst is the world's most successful artist, a global brand known for its shock value. In the 1990s he emerged as the front figure of the Young British Artists, a group that included Tracey Emin, who exhibited her own slightly soiled bed, and the Chapman brothers, who created a toy soldier concentration camp. As the high priest of the movement, Hirst became the chief proponent of concept art--that is, the view that in art the idea is all that matters, while the execution is something mechanical best left to others. Technical skills and craftsmanship in the artist are regarded as irrelevant, even suspect, and when these terms occur, they are invariably prefaced with the word "mere."
Inspired by Andy Warhol's factory system, Hirst has built a business empire employing an army of 120 assistants carrying out his ideas, some serving in the pickling division (pickling sharks, cows, and sheep), others in the laundry division (in charge of dryers and spinners for his spin paintings), or in the medical division (polishing and arranging pills in his medical cupboards). To this one can add a crack sales team peddling the products.
In a 2001 interview book, On the Way to Work, Hirst contemplates an installation to be called The History of Fame, featuring a white inflated balloon
suspended on a jet of air above several dozen fiercely sharpened Sabatier knives. The History of Fame would have an audience soundtrack--rumbles of anticipation and applause when the ball dropped close to the knives and appeared to be in danger of bursting; groans of disappointment when it floated clear of the daggers and the carvers waiting to go to work.
Now, Hirst's own balloon seems to have hit the knives. The occasion is his London exhibition of 25 artworks. Produced in a studio at Claridge's during 2006-08, the paintings feature some well-known Hirst motifs: skulls, ashtrays, shark jaws.
It is not the subject matter that is shocking: Hirst's obsession with death and decay is longstanding and includes early works like a calf's head infested with maggots which turn into flies that are zapped by an electric insect grill, not to mention his arrangement of rotting, copulating cattle, a work that was banned by health authorites in New York. On this background, a skull is small beer. No, what is shocking is that he has tried to paint his subjects, in the process revealing himself to be utterly bereft of talent. The London critics were at their most magnificently sulfurous, and they were unanimous. The Times called the works "dreadful" and "shockingly bad." Panning the artist's "turgid teen angst," the Independent's Tom Lubbock wrote, "There are many painters you'd find in evening classes much worse than Hirst. On the other hand, you'd find quite a few better. To try and be accurate, as a painter, Hirst is about at the level of a not very promising first year student. He is in his mid-forties."
His skulls look "like the confectionery skulls children gobble in Mexico on the Day of the Dead," chimed in the Observer's Peter Conrad. "Despite the rowdy bravado with which he jokes about mortality and welcomes the Apocalypse, he has the small soul of an interior decorator." Even the Guardian, which normally considers itself extremely progressive, called them "a memento mori for a reputation."
Hirst certainly tempted fate by his choice of venue, the Wallace Collection in Hertford House, which contains works by Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, and Fragonard, thereby inviting direct comparison. Out of his own pocket, he had shelled out £250,000 to have the ceiling gilded and the walls clad in candy-striped blue silk--made, as all the papers gleefully pointed out, by Prelle of Lyons, the firm that used to cater to the whims of Marie Antoinette.
"Bumptiously confronting Titian, Poussin, and other venerable elders at the Wallace Collection, Hirst is enjoying his temporary ownership of the trampled, desecrated earth. But he is not a legitimate heir and the Wallace Collection is playing host to a jumped up pretender," snarled Conrad.
Just to emphasize: It is not Hirst running an art factory, in itself, that upsets the critics. Some of the old masters ran factories, too, letting assistants handle the routine aspects, only to step in and do the finishing touches themselves. A comparison with Rubens is particularly apt: Like Hirst, Rubens was a great businessman with a workshop employing 20 assistants. (A visitor paying a call at his studio in Antwerp in 1620 described the master bossing his apprentices around, all the while dictating a letter and listening to someone reading aloud passages from Tacitus.) The difference is that nobody for a moment doubted that Rubens was capable of handling all the tricky bits himself.
Actually, for those listening carefully, this critical sharpening of the knives has been going on for some time. Few doubted Hirst's business acumen last year when he sold 223 works at Sotheby's under the title Beautiful Inside My Head Forever for £111 million, thereby cutting out the middleman (the galleries) who normally take a 40 percent cut. But it was also suggested that the Western market was flooded and bored with Hirst, and that he had to look to the Middle East, Russia, and Asia to find prospective clients for the kind of bling art which, in the words of the Times critic, lately seemed inspired by "the gold fixtures in the Sultan of Brunei's bathroom." It was noted that many of the underbidders were his gallerists, artificially forcing the prices up.
When tackling past criticism Hirst has always employed smart, disarming press tactics, preempting criticism by cheerfully admitting that he steals with both arms and legs. This cheekie-chappie aspect is an important part of his act, openly mocking the lack of discernment in the very people who admire and buy his art. Of his Spin paintings he has stated, "They are bright and they are zany. But there is f-- all there at the end of the day." Hirst collectors find this irresistible. In the present case, however, his prior admission that he doesn't think he has "the same abilities as someone like Rembrandt," or that his three sons paint better than he does, did not pull it off.
With the Wallace exhibition, the -London critics agreed that we are witnessing a key moment in art history: Hirst has brought painting, long declared dead and buried, back as the only true art form, thereby rejecting everything he has stood for. As Jonathan Jones summed it up in his Guardian blog post:
It is not just Hirst who is implicated in this exposure. It is an entire idea of art that triumphed in the 1990s and still dominates our culture--an entire age of the readymade stands accused by its own creator of being a charade. No critic has even come close to the total dismissal of 21st-century art implied by the Hirst turnabout.
By the very feebleness of this latest performance, Damien Hirst has underscored that skills and craftsmanship are still of critical importance.
Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.