The idea of one spot painting is mystifying enough, but the idea of hundreds of them in eleven galleries across the world is frankly preposterous. But this is exactly what is happening: Gagosian is presenting ‘The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011’ simultaneously in all his galleries as a kind of survey ahead of Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern later this year. The result is surprisingly moving; whether it moves one to wonder or fury, this cacophony of spots offers an opportunity to reconsider some of the most iconic canvases of the last twenty-five years.
The moment you enter the gallery, you are confronted by Technicolor spots from every direction. Straight ahead, the main gallery gives a glimpse of the largest work on show; to the left, a series of smaller canvases leading into three other rooms; and to the right, one tall canvas that stretches from floor to ceiling. I suspect that for the sceptics and those of a nervous disposition, this welcome itself will be more than enough spots for one day, but it is hard not to find it tantalising.
The experience is quite overwhelming. When you are stood in the middle of the room, the spots undulate in their lines and pulsate from the canvas; they create an atmosphere of anxiety, as the torrent of resplendent colour confuses all sense of both order and chaos, like a torture chamber designed to upset the mind and the senses simultaneously. Aside from the obvious marketing ploy, it is a shrewd move by Gagosian: collecting the spot paintings together like this compels one to see them as works of art which have the power to cultivate experiences rather than as singular entities of commercial laziness.
Damien Hirst, Morphine Sulphate, 1993, Household gloss on canvas, 57 x 87 inches (144.8 x 221 cm); Courtesy Gagosian Gallery - Britannia Street
It is a deluge of work, for sure, and it is a vulgar saturation of Hirst that eventually becomes disturbing. But it is also a unique game of spot the difference, where the earnest viewer can put to the test the much-lauded claim that no colour is ever repeated on a single canvas, which brings a little fun into the equation. More importantly, however, it gives the opportunity to see the breathtaking scale of variation in what, at first sight, appears to be an endlessly repeated format. Like the puppet master at the head of the show, Hirst determines the size of the canvas and the size of the spots, provides the titles and stipulates that the gap between the spots is always equal to the diameter of the spot, leaving the colours up to the assistants who actually paint them.
The difference between one spot painting and another can be minimal, but it can also be vast, since the variants have their source in an infinite combination of mathematical variables that are limited in principle only by the size of the universe. And that is the secret of this show: it is truly refreshing and delightful to see just how different one arrangement of spots can be from another. The large canvases, like the 40ft wide L-Tyrosine-15N, have the power to consume the room like any fresco, while the small canvases with their tiny spots, like Cesium Bromide with its 5mm spots, appear as only confused masses of colour until you get up close. They hit you and attack you; they are wild, rampant swarms of paint that have a life of their own.
It is, however, less about the size of the canvas than it is about the size of the spots, since there does not seem to be any consistent relation between them, for large canvases have small spots and small canvases have large spots. The circular canvas, Zirconium Oxide, uses its 213.4cm diameter to make its two-inch spots devour the entire wall like a black hole. The apparently solid geometry of these works is often upset by the sheer difficulty of looking at them for long enough to analyse the distributions of shape and colour, so that the circular one switches between spots arranged in lines and in circles, or the triangular ones give an aching sense of something missing from the equation.
It is good to know that Hirst hasn’t been doing literally the same thing for the last twenty-five years, and that the spot paintings are varied enough to remain interesting in these numbers. For an idea that seems very boring in theory, the spot paintings are a joy to behold in practice just because they are different on the full scale from subtlety to melodrama. It is worth going to see the show just to play devil’s advocate with yourself and see if it can change your mind.
As to be expected with Hirst, there is yet more spectacle. A member of Gagosian staff tells me that the key paintings which correlate specific colours with letters of the alphabet are the start of a game: if you look at each painting carefully, a sequence of colours will reveal a hidden word, and if you get the word first you win a spot painting. This exhibition is ridiculous, but it is also epic, and a fascinating, if frightening, insight into the belly of the beast that is Damien Hirst’s art.
(Image at top: Damien Hirst, Levorphanol, 1995, Household gloss on canvas , 27 x 27 inches (68.6 x 68.6 cm); © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2011)