Since it opened last November I’ve been paying visits every so often to the Damien Hirst installation that occupies much of the glass enclosed lobby of Lever House. When it was completed in 1952, Lever House was the first glass and steel modernist office building on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. It’s now owned by Aby Rosen, a developer and Hirst collector who arranged for this installation, which has the not-quite-grammatical title: School: The Archeology of Lost Desires, Comprehending Infinity, and the Search for Knowledge.
It’s a Surrealist-tinged title for an installation with Surrealist sources in the realms of dream, dread and disgust. It’s also something of a catch-all of Hirst’s recurring motifs. This time he’s stuffed the space with 30 glass tanks filled with formaldehyde. Each tank holds a beheaded white preserved sheep, and each is placed on a gleaming stainless steel autopsy table. Those are arranged in long rows, to make an ensemble image that’s both primal and antiseptic in a way that plays off of the vocabulary of glass and steel that Lever House, which was designed by Gordon Bunshaft, did so much to introduce to the American cityscape.
Hirst has also talked about the piece as an homage to Francis Bacon, which is plain enough, maybe too plain, from the pair of vertical beef carcasses on one end of the installation that flank a black umbrella, a reference to Bacon’s great early canvas Painting that’s on permanent display a few blocks away at the Museum of Modern Art.
And which in turn of course harks back to Rembrandt’s great butchered side of beef.
There’s also a shark in there, some medicine cabinets, Dan Flavin-ish white fluorescent tubes…anyway, a Hirst sampler. The installation is in some ways more effective than Hirst’s single pickled shark-in-a-tank that’s on loan now at the Metropolitan Museum. The science fiction gleam of all that metal in that glass lobby amplifies the element of death-denial that’s crucial to HIrst’s idee fixe about humans and their own mortality. And the sepulchral whiteness of the sheep, like the winding-sheet pallor of Melville’s deathly White Whale, is a nice touch. But scale doesn’t fully translate to impact here. It all feels too much like Hirst re-marketing some famillar brands.
Hirst gets villified as a cynic and God knows sometimes he deserves it. But as an installation artist he has his moments, even his brilliant ones. This isn’t quite one of them. His problem may be that his cynicism makes his would be seriousness hard to credit. And that, in the war against cliche, as Martin Amis has called it, you can never be sure which side he’ll turn up on.