"Damien Hirst curated the widely acclaimed 'Freeze' exhibition in 1988 while still a student at Goldsmiths College. This show launched the careers of many successful young British artists, including his own. Hirst graduated from Goldsmiths in 1989, and has since become the most famous living British artist after David Hockney.
"In 1991, Hirst presented In and Out of Love, an installation for which he filled a gallery with hundreds of live tropical butterflies, some spawned from monochrome canvases on the wall. With The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), his infamous tiger shark in a glass tank of formaldehyde shown at the Saatchi Gallery, Damien Hirst became a media icon and household name. He has since been imitated, parodied, reproached and exalted by the media and public alike.
"Hirst's work is an examination of the processes of life and death: the ironies, falsehoods and desires that we mobilise to negotiate our own alienation and mortality. His production can be roughly grouped into three areas: paintings, cabinet sculptures and the glass tank pieces. The paintings divide into spot and spin paintings. The former are randomly organised, colour-spotted canvases with titles that refer to pharmaceutical chemicals. The spin paintings are 'painted' on a spinning table, so that each individual work is created through centrifugal force. For the cabinet series Hirst displayed collections of surgical tools or hundreds of pill bottles on highly ordered shelves. The tank pieces incorporate dead and sometimes dissected animals - cows, sheep or the shark - preserved in formaldehyde, suspended in death."
"Damien Hirst shaped shared ideas and interests quickly and easily, his work developing during the decade [1987-1997] to reflect changes in contemporary life. Relying on the straightforward appeal of colour and form, he made important art that contained little mystery in its construction. Adopting the graphic punch of billboard imagery, his work was arresting at a distance and physically surprising close up. Hirst understood art at its most simple and at its most complex. He reduced painting to its basic elements to eliminate abstraction's mystery. In the age of art as a commodity he made spot paintings - saucer-sized, coloured circles on a white ground - that became luxury designer goods. His art was direct but never empty. In the later spin paintings, which emphasised a renewed interest in a hands-on process of making, Hirst magnified a 'hobby'-art technique, drawing attention to the accidental and expressive energy of the haphazard. Influenced by Jeff Koons's basketballs floating in water, Hirst's early work used pharmacy medicine cabinets that showed the applied beauty of Modernist design. A cabinet of individual fish suspended in formaldehyde worked like the spot paintings, as an arrangement of colour, shape and form. This work came to be seen in the popular mind as a symbol of advanced art; overcoming an initial distrust of its ease of assembly, people became fascinated by how ordinary things of the world could be placed so as to be seen as beautiful. The work democratised its meaning, operating as simply as a pop song.
"Hirst, understanding Collishaw's coup with the gunshot wound photograph, created work that brought together the joy of life and the inevitability of death, in the process transforming the secrecy of Collishaw's voyeurism into mass spectacle. A scene of pastoral beauty became one of languid death: in In and Out of Love, newly emerged butterflies stuck to freshly painted monochromes; in A Thousand Years, flies emerged from maggots, ate and died, zapped by an insect-o-cutor. Soon, the emphasis changed from an observation of creatures dying to the presentation of dead animals. A shark in a tank of formaldehyde presented a once life-threatening beast as a carcass: the glass box, half hunting trophy, half homage to the Minimalist object, imposed the gravity of a natural history museum onto an outsized council-house ornament. Hirst's sculpture progressed with the Arcadian beauty of a solitary sheep,Away from the Flock, followed by the gothic thrill of the mechanically moving pig. Hirst understood the claustrophobic horror of Francis Bacon's art, and found surprising parallels in the modern office or the lowly art tradition of portraits of animals. His fascination with the elevation of the commonplace, the unremarkable and the everyday has found Hirst at his most inventive."
"By the time work by Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread could be viewed here in New York in any kind of depth, both artists' reputations had long preceded them. We were hypnotised - amazed, up-in-arms, fascinated, threatened - by the flood of images of Hirst's encased shark, images that for several years here remained uncorroborated by any actual objects. The pickled predator remains the very symbol, and with hindsight the warning signal, for the invasion that ensued. Hirst may have been heralded in a timely enough manner, but in fact he did not have a major one-man exhibition in New York until 1996, the year of his much-delayed inaugural at Gagosian. Thus, the surprise of that carnivalesque event was not only its scale but its unexpected variety: from sliced cows and mechanised pig, to Spin-Art paintings, to a giant ashtray full of butts - it had the crazed, cracked energy of a late-'70s Jonathan Borofsky extravaganza gone grizzly-gothic. Almost miraculously, given the US Customs' problems attending Hirst's taxidermical exercises - not to mention the then-fresh panic concerning British beef - the mood at the opening was cheerfully optimistic, indeed quite madly upbeat."
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)
A Thousand Years (1990)
Away from the Flock (1994)
Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purposes of Understanding (1991)
This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home (1996)
Damiens Hirsts, "Virgin Mother"
Millionaire shock artist Damien Hirst, recently named Most Powerful Person in the International Art World and Lord of Toddington Manor, is stirring things up again. He has done a second version of his statueVirgin Mother, which has just been installed in London. His first version of this sculpture is on display at Lever House in New York, and it was pilloried in an apocalyptic article by Jerry Saltz for Artnet. BBC News has a report (Hirst statue unveiled in London, May 22):
A 35ft-tall, 13-and-a-half-ton Damien Hirst statue revealing the insides of a pregnant woman has been unveiled at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Virgin Mother has layers removed on one side to reveal the foetus and the woman's skull, muscles and tissue. The BBC News website was given first look at the statue, part of the gallery's Summer Exhibition, From Life. Head of the exhibition Edith Devaney said: "It will be very interesting to see people's reactions." The bronze statue, recalling Edgar Degas's Little Dancer, dominates the courtyard in front of the gallery, and is visible from Piccadilly where passers by stopped to look as a crane hoisted it into place on Monday. "This is the first piece people encounter on the way into the exhibition, and it says everything about the theme," Ms Devaney told the BBC News website. "I don't think people will be upset by it - I think it's still very beautiful. Because there is a baby involved, it is very life-affirming."It was difficult to cast something this huge in bronze, and it is apparently one of the largest bronze statues in the world. To keep it from collapsing under its own weight, certain delicate parts have been reinforced with a stainless steel skeleton. The Summer Exhibition is open from June 12 to August 20.
The Degas comparison is an interesting one, but the subject matter reminded me of Leonardo's drawings. Part of the shock of this piece is its anatomical focus, something like a vivisection, amplified by its massive scale. Although they were never meant for public consumption, Leonardo did make several sketches in his notebooks from anatomical studies on all sorts of interesting human subjects, including afetus in the womb, a man and woman in the sexual act, the position of fetuses in utero, and a woman's viscera. Then again, Leonardo sketched a lot of crazy things, but the point I am making is that beauty is not only skin deep.
Acetic Anhydride 1991 gloss household paint on canvas 169 x 200 cm / 66½ x 79"