Damien Hirst may have slowed down since bursting onto the scene as unofficial leader of the “Young British artist” movement in the 1990s, but he remains one of the most divisive figures in the art world today.
His “For the Love of God” (2007), a skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds which sold for $100 million, and “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991), a dead shark floating in formaldehyde, have been both derided as stunts and heralded as groundbreaking. Since 1986, Hirst produced a series he calls “spot paintings” – canvases featuring grids of dots of various colors and sizes.
Of the roughly 1,400 canvases, 300 will be on display from Jan. 12 spanning the globe in 11 galleries run by U.S. art dealer Larry Gagosian. Roughly half are on loan from private dealers while the other half are for sale.
Hirst produced the paintings through his studio with the help of assistants but reportedly only painted five of them, causing some to question the integrity of the collection.
Recently, he agreed to answer questions from Reuters via email, discussing his process and taking on his detractors.
Q: What is behind this notion of dedicating all 11 Gagosian galleries to your spot paintings?
A: “I have been making spot paintings for almost 25 years and have gone down many different roads with them and have always wanted to do a show that told the story of this body of work. The show is a retrospective with loans from over 150 collectors from 20 different countries, but of course there are also some works for sale.”
Q: Can you talk about the genesis of the spot paintings? Where did the concept come from and why a “factory process” instead of the usual way of applying brush to canvas?
A: “Rather than think about whether a painting is important or high brow, I tried to imagine a painting that if you left it in the street outside a busy bar would it be still there in the morning or would someone think it looked cool enough to take home? They are made by applying a brush to canvas and they are hand-made in that way. I think it’s important that they are handmade but equally important that they look machine made. I’ve never had a problem with using assistants.”
Q: What is your thinking behind the spot paintings? How do you explain their relevance?
A: “I wanted to find a way to use color in paintings that wasn’t expressionism. I was taught by painters who believed that as an artist you paint how you feel and I believed in that for a long time. And then I lost faith in it and wanted to create a system where whatever decisions you make within a painting, the paintings end up happy. And I came up with spot paintings.”
Q: I’ve heard you were considering selling “spot painting” kits in stores?
A: “I made an editioned piece called ‘paint by numbers’ where you could buy a box containing a blank canvas with dots printed on it, all numbered, and tins of paint, all numbered, and with brushes in the box where you could paint your own Damien Hirst. It’s funny because the unpainted ones sell for a lot more money than one that’s been painted. And lots of people bought them to keep without painting them.”
Q: Is it true you painted only five of the some 1,400 spot paintings? How can you put your name to works with which you are only very loosely linked? Or is that to miss the point?
A: “Totally missing the point, and it amazes me that I still get asked these questions. You have to look at it as if the artist is an architect, and we don’t have a problem that great architects don’t actually build the houses.”
Q: David Hockney has been quoted as saying that to paint you need the eye, the hand and the heart, but two won’t do. Do you agree?
A: “I totally agree and every single spot painting contains my eye, my hand and my heart. I imagine you will want to say that if I don’t actually paint them myself then how can my hand be there? But I controlled every aspect of them coming into being and much more than just designing them or even ordering them over the phone. And my hand is evident in the paintings everywhere.”
Q: You are the wealthiest living artist. What does that say about your work? What does it say about the business of art?
A: “I’ve always strived to be good in my own terms, not other people’s. I feel lucky to be able to do things I could only dream of as a child but the wealthiest living artist doesn’t sound like something great to have on my gravestone. It doesn’t say anything to me about the business of art. All I know is that if two people want something and they both have a lot of money then that thing is gonna sell for a lot of money and no one can control that.”
Q: Do you believe you symbolized art in the 1990s the way Warhol did in the 1960s?
A: “No, I hope I’m much too humble to fall into that trap. I have to work hard to believe in what I do, and couldn’t believe in something as mega as that without losing touch with reality.”
Q: What are your plans going forward?
A: “I’m working on an idea to make some primate paintings and working with monkeys, and I’m working on some pie chart paintings, and an exhibition about sunken treasures. Not sure if any of them are great ideas but that’s what’s great about being an artist. I remember someone saying to me early in my career, ‘I love your work but why do you do the stupid spots?’ It’s my job to keep doing what I believe in against all the odds.”