Damien Hirst: Dead on Arrival

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The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth, Damien Hirst, 2008/photo: Damien HIrst and the Wallace Collection

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth, Damien HIrst/photo: Damien HIrst and the Wallace Collection

After years of doing installation art, dead animals in formaldehyde and pictures painted entirely by his small army of studio assistants, work that made him one of the most famous artists in the world, Damien Hirst is showing paintings in London this week that he did all by himself. And the British critics are tearing him to pieces.

When I profiled him last year for Time, Damien Hirst was at an odd place in his career. As a market and media phenomenon he was bigger than ever. He was about to rake in an additional pirate’s treasure by cutting out his dealers and taking several years worth of his new work directly to auction at Sotheby’s in London. As we all now know, though the sale took place the same week that Lehman Brothers collapsed in New York, it brought in nearly $200 million — the perfect End-of-the-Gilded-Age blowout.

But he was also at some kind of psychological crossroads. He had made his name with work that had no trace of his hand, but his greatest hero was Francis Bacon, one of the most painterly painters of all time. And Hirst had come to a point where he seemed to feel that the only way to demonstrate his own authenticity as an artist was to paint — actually paint, meaning applying the stuff to the canvas himself. You got the feeling he was embarked on a sort of a one-man rappelle a l’ordre, like Picasso’s return to neo-classical figuration after Cubism. One difference, of course, was that Picasso could draw.

One day that summer at Hirst’s offices in London, with one of the several Bacons in his collection looking down from one wall, he showed me some large transparencies of the work he had begun. They were ghostly white-line figures and (of course) skulls, drawn in paint against dark blue backgrounds. It was pretty clear right away what work had inspired them, Bacon’s series of Blue Men of the 1950s, isolated businessmen in pinstripes painted against spare dark backgrounds.

Man in Blue VII, Francis Bacon, 1954/ © The Estate of Francis Bacon

Man in Blue VII, Francis Bacon, 1954/ © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They didn’t look very promising but I didn’t offer any judgments about them then and I won’t offer any now. You can’t make final judgments based on reproductions or transparencies. But I do remember thinking that when he finally exhibited them he was probably going to be slaughtered by the critics in London, who had gotten thoroughly sick of those endless dot and butterfly paintings being churned out in his name by his assistants, to say nothing of that diamond encrusted skull.

I was pretty sick of all that, too, but I was also sort of moved by Hirst’s predicament. He had become one of the most successful artists in the world without painting anything himself, but at the age of 43 he felt he needed to work in the great tradition to feel validated. It reminded me of the way Billy Joel and Paul McCartney keep trying to write classical music.

Requiem, White Roses and Butterflies, Hirst, 2008/photo: Damien Hirst and the Wallace Collection

Requiem, White Roses and Butterflies, Hirst, 2008/photo: Damien Hirst and the Wallace Collection

Well, Hirst is now showing those paintings, 25 of them, in an exhibition that opens today in London called “No Love Lost”. As an additional provocation he’s showing them at the Wallace Collection, an ornate old townhouse stuffed with works by Titian, Rembrandt and Poussin, which means he’s placing himself squarely in the long line of art history. And, as predicted, the British critics have taken out all the long knives.

Tom Lubbock, in The Independent, is typical:

They’re thoroughly derivative. Their handling is weak. They’re extremely boring. I’m not saying that he’s absolutely hopeless. But I’m not saying he’s any good either. … Hirst, as a painter, is at about the level of a not-very-promising, first-year art student. He is in his mid-forties.

As a public service, on its website the BBC combines links to several of the reviews.

Hirst remains a very canny operator, and occasionally also an interesting artist, though not on canvas. I predict he’ll survive all this, though it will be interesting to see how long it takes before he shows paintings again.