The Emperor’s New Paintings


The 31 paintings in Damien Hirst’s sad new show at Gagosian are not paintings at all; or rather, they’re generic-to-bad photo-realist efforts. Any semi-adept student or average commercial artist could have made them. Many do. But this isn’t what makes Hirst’s paintings sad; it only makes them ordinary and academic.

A team of assistants executed these works, although the gallery is quick to point out that “Damien worked on every one.” Whatever. The paintings are proficient but inane. What’s sad about Hirst’s new show is that this rebel of 1988 (when he curated the legendary “Freeze” exhibition in London), this grandfather of old-school British shock tactics and entrepreneurial razzmatazz, this mini-mogul who has the means to make images of anything he wants in any style at all—and who not long ago made the extraordinary Armageddon, a monochrome painting composed entirely of dead flies—this artist chose to render such run-of-the-mill sensationalist subjects in such run-of-the-mill ways. This truculent pumpkin, once so adept at failing in flamboyant ways, has gone from beery bluster to blowsy bathos.

His supporters claim “The Elusive Truth,” as this show is called, is “theater,” and that the paintings are “gestures,” which is insider jargon for saying Hirst is aware that these are representations of Hirstian subjects made in deliberately routine ways. They say this makes Hirst “transgressive,” which is ludicrous because, above all, this work is a total capitulation to an art world where money is the primary measure of success. The subject matter is pure Hirst, which is shtick and straight out of medical books and tabloids, what Hal Foster famously called “trauma culture”: morgues, bits of brains, a crack addict, skulls, strife, drugs, etc. Seeing Hirst rehash his old subjects in such pale ways is like listening to Paul McCartney sing Beatles songs in Wings.

The best that can be said about these canvases is that Hirst is working in the interstice between painting and the name of the painter: Damien Hirst is making Damien Hirsts. The paintings themselves are transparent; in effect they are only labels—carriers of the Hirst brand. They’re like Prada or Gucci. You pay more but get the buzz of a brand. For between $250,000 and $2 million, rubes and speculators can buy a work that is only a name. As Hirst has said, “They’ll buy what you fucking give them.” This isn’t only bad art, it’s bad thinking.

Every painting is sold, which isn’t surprising in these times when collectors buy what other collectors buy, advisers sell art over the phone, and artists wonder if their prices should be higher. Buyers get a placeholder: A painting by a big name with a big price tag that presumably will command an even higher resale value. Hirst & Co. have created a perfidious feedback loop where everyone gets to snicker at everyone else. We sneer at Hirst, his dealers, and his collectors for having bad taste and bad values; they scoff at us for being old-fashioned, out-of-the-money sourpusses. We all tell ourselves what we already know. The only thing at stake is gamesmanship.

Worse than the paintings because it’s permanent—not to mention marring the entrance to the beautiful Lever House on Park Avenue—is Hirst’s hideous Virgin Mother, a 35-foot bronze eyesore of a naked pregnant woman with a cutaway view of her womb. Here, Hirst is doing what he’s always done: trying to imitate Jeff Koons. He put things in vitrines after Koons did and started painting realistically after Koons. In attempting to equal Koons’s stunning Puppy, Hirst has created something even more revolting than Jim Dine’s figures on Sixth Avenue. Virgin Mother should be removed straightaway and those responsible for placing it here should be fired or whatever is done with reckless, imbecilic billionaires.

In the end, Hirst is just another symptom of the hype, the hubris, and the money that have swamped the art scene lately. I love that weirdos and gypsies are rewarded in the art world. But Hirst and the many others who are currently riding the whirlwind aren’t weird at all; they’re official pitchmen and -women. Hirst’s show merely brings us a step closer to the end of this profligate period. At his glitzy after-party, in an enormous tent on the roof of Lever House—amid dancing models, reveling stockbrokers, and the same successful artists and art world showboats you see at every one of these events—I thought I heard the Drums of Destiny on the horizon. The last time an art world party felt this noxious to me was at an equally decadent dinner given for Anselm Keifer on May 1, 1993. Hysteria and flagrancy filled the air then too. Now it’s worse.

When the money vanished in the early 1990s, it took a large swath of the art world with it. Essentially, we had to start over. This reckoning will be different: The art world is so huge, interrelated, and dispersed that it will be more like a tornado than a tidal wave—more erratic and patchy. Regardless, many of the people who are making things gross will go away, Hirst’s show and others like it will feel like the last gasps that they are, and we’ll be on our own again—which will be wonderful.

Correction: In last week’s review of P.S. 1’s “Greater New York” exhibition the number of graduates or current students from Columbia University was incorrectly stated to be 28. The correct number is 34—or 20 percent of the exhibition.