Let the carnival begin! The thin crowd present for the New York City preview of Damien Hirst’s globe-spanning “spot painting” retrospective (opening at all 11 Gagosian galleries worldwide on January 12) was dwarfed by the enormous works installed in the blue-chip empire's West 21st Street space. In fact, the assembled guests were so few that the sheer profusion of dots in druggy pastels seemed even more overwhelming, while an anticipatory vibe filled the gallery, as if some momentous event was about to transpire. But, despite the presence of so much expensive art, and the advance promotional blitz presenting the show as an international happening, the overall effect was intensely underwhelming — like witnessing the mayor of a small town cut the ribbon on an undistinguished public park.
Hirst himself was there to perform the symbolic unveiling, decked out in a lab-jacket-white blazer, blingy silver necklaces, a total of three skull rings, loose-fitting jeans, and a Che Guevera-style t-shirt reading “we are all undesirables” in French. Gagosian London director Millicent Wilner introduced the artist and the exhibition before offering Hirst up for a photo op. The most dramatic moment of the morning was the clacking of dozens of shutters as Hirst mugged silently in front of "Minoxidil" (2005), at one point pulling his nose up into a pig face, but offering no further commentary on his work.
Asked by one visitor to address the meaning of Hirst’s spot paintings, Wilner smoothly deflected the question, saying that Hirst had spoken many times about their significance in the past. Having read those interviews, one knows that the artworks are part of a series formally called “Pharmaceuticals” — but known to all as the "Spot" paintings — and their individual titles are largely drawn from chemical compounds; their compositions might be linked to atomic structure diagrams. To find meaning in the paintings’s visual beauty would be difficult but not impossible. The colors are too sickly to be joyful, and the variation from canvas to canvas too woozy to really enjoy.
Perhaps the paintings don't have any meaning, but are simply supports for whatever perspective you bring to them. If you desire them, then they’re either anodyne interior decoration or antidepressants for aimless, postmodern lives. If you’re angry with them, then they’re lifestyle trophies for the rich and symbols of the exploitative one percent. You pick — there’s no wrong answer.
Preview Damien Hirst’s "The Complete Spot Paintings: 1986-2011" retrospective at the West 21st Street Gagosian space by clicking on the slide show.