London Tate Modern’s contribution to London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad is a five-month Damien Hirst retrospective (on view through Sept. 9). This carefully contrived blockbuster packs over 70 works into 14 rooms, from his first and crudest Spot Painting (1986) to the impossibly well-manufactured Judgement Day (2009), a lavishly monumental gold frame containing nearly 30,000 cut diamonds (actually cubic zirconia). Between creating these two works, Hirst went from student to superstar, famously establishing a vast workshop to produce items for his endlessly demanding collectors. Hirst started out as a painter, and he has returned to oil on canvas, concurrently offering his latest pictures at White Cube’s new bunker. Together the exhibitions reveal what a long, strange industry it’s been.
His London outing in 2008, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” a two-day Sotheby’s sale, was quintessential Hirst, from the catchy title to the thwarting of artworld protocol by selling directly through the auction house—and making obscene amounts of money. Such coups de théâtre reinforce Hirst’s position as a powerhouse.
Which makes the Tate Modern show so welcome. Besides bringing many of Hirst’s well-known works together, curator Ann Gallagher has performed an excellent edit of his career. The exhibition allows one to see that the iconic works emerged quite early on. The first few rooms present three major statements: the spot paintings, a rotting cow’s head covered in maggots and flies (A Thousand Years, 1990) and a shark in formaldehyde (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991). The significance of these cannot be overstated; they are themselves commanding works, and they also serve as cultural reference points.
The retrospective affirmed that, since this beginning, Hirst has gone on to rework and recycle these ideas and themes, producing ever more sleek and expensively made variations—his fabricated steel, polished chrome, shiny gold plate and diamonds reflecting an escalating game of market bluff. Works like Judgement Day cannot hide the harsh truth that his original, profoundly exciting creative output has become redundant, vacuous kitsch.
At White Cube, the 35 paintings, which Hirst began in 2010 and made without the usual assistants, emphasized his need for an editor. A series of crudely painted still lifes featuring parrots, flower blossoms, human skulls and shark jaws overlaid with spots, butterflies and networks of lines are sadly execrable. Perhaps Hirst found running a production line for shiny, sparkling tchotchkes boring. He appears to be dealing with midlife crisis by trying to be Francis Bacon (whom he is known to admire and collect), alluding to that artist’s metaphysical darkness and copying some of his compositional devices. On the evidence of the paintings here, he should figure out another strategy.
Photo: Damien Hirst: A Thousand Years, 1990, glass, steel, cow’s head, maggots, flies and mixed mediums; at Tate Modern. © DACS.