Damien Hirst's Spot Paintings: The Appeal of Endlessness

Written by - Lucy Howie
Dequalinium Chloride by Damien Hirst Dequalinium Chloride © Damien Hirst 2016

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Endless dots and colour combinations - Damien Hirst’s Spot Paintings are a defining feature of the controversial artist’s career.

But how many spot paintings are there exactly? Hirst estimates to have produced around 1400 spot paintings since the genesis of the format in 1988. Minimalist in their aesthetic, the Spot Paintings can be replicated in various colours, many times over. This simplicity is not to be underestimated however, with the meaning of Hirst's Spot Paintings being complex and multifaceted.

Where did the Spot Paintings first appear?

During his time at Goldsmiths, Hirst began to experiment liberally with colour, producing installations such as the little-known artwork 8 Pans (1987), comprising a set of 8 laterally arranged and brightly coloured saucepans. The young Hirst started to expand upon his use of colour, turning once again to painting - which he had largely abandoned in favour of unorthodox media like found objects.

"I gave up painting at 16. I secretly thought I would have been Rembrandt by then."
Damien Hirst

Co-organised by fellow artist Angus Fairhurst during the pair’s second year at art school, the 1988 Freeze exhibition featured the first examples of what would go on to be named Hirst’s ‘Spot’ paintings. Row (1988) and Edge (1988) were painted directly onto the repurposed walls of an empty Port of London Authority building in the Docklands area, where the seminal and career-defining showcase took place. Exhibited alongside the work of 16 other Young British Artists, including Tracey Emin, these works comprised a grid-like arrangement of different coloured spots. The works at the Freeze exhibition were an important conceptual bridging point between three-dimensional installations, such as Boxes (1988), and Hirst’s two-dimensional works.

Row and Edge place graphic simplicity and colour centre stage, defining the conceptual and compositional ‘rules’ for all of Hirst’s subsequent ‘Spot’ paintings. Following the early Spot works, no two colours were to be alike, and the dots were to be perfectly circular, evenly-spaced, and arranged in a grid-like pattern. Unlike their successors, however, these early works were conceived in a manner far from ‘precise’; daubed in an expressive mode that referenced American Abstract Expressionism, coloured paint dripped freely down the walls of Freeze in a fashion that foreshadowed Hirst’s later ‘Spin’ paintings. The perplexing juxtaposition between the ‘Spot’ paintings and Hirst’s disturbing, death-obsessed installation pieces has long been clear for all to see: when he first saw the now iconic A Thousand Years (1990), it is reported that Lucian Freud turned to Hirst and remarked, bemusedly, "I think you started with the final act, my dear."

Some of the most sought after Spot prints were published in 2000, in collaboration with the online contemporary art gallery Eyestorm. The three limited edition Pharmaceutical Spot prints were named after drugs that were both taboo and highly recognisable to an artworld audience: Valium, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) and Opium.

We asked specialist and CEO of Eyestorm, Henrik Riis, why Spot prints continue to hold their immense significance and popular appeal - he explains, "I think the popularity of the Spots stems from that they are so visibly easy to understand for many people. From a communication perspective they are simple. Most people do not know the story behind the series, but they instantly know that a Spot print is a Hirst. This is what gives them their ‘wow’ factor and why so many people want to hang them in their homes."

Hirst and Mechanical Reproduction

The Spot paintings gained serious momentum in the 1990s. This was largely because after having produced the first five with his own hand, Hirst quickly passed the task on to his assistants. Characterised with a sense of mechanical reproduction, both in how they’re made and how they look, the dots grew wildly in number.

The basis for an endless series of works, the grid formula of the Spot paintings meant that they easily lent themselves to reproduction and the removal of the artist’s own hand. Marking a turning point in his career, these were Hirst’s first forays into the world of art ‘fabrication’ – a divisive artistic method explored by American Pop Artist Andy Warhol, and later by the inimitable ‘king of kitsch’, Jeff Koons. Commenting on his assistants’ efforts, Hirst famously commented, "… the best person who ever painted spots for me was Rachel. She’s brilliant. Absolutely fucking brilliant. The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel."

Spots and Pharmaceuticals

Later in the 1990s, Hirst’s Spot paintings collided head on with what would prove a recurring theme in the artist’s work: drugs.

In 1992, Hirst produced the room-sized installation Pharmacy, which comprised room-sized cabinets stacked with a plethora of pharmaceutical drugs. These drugs were arranged in a pattern so as to represent the different areas of the body: at the top of the cabinets were medicines for the head; in the middle, those for the stomach; at the very bottom, those for the feet.

The spatial and classificatory schematisation of Pharmacy was to prove instrumental in making the Spot paintings conform to an even more rigid formula. Soon each painting was designed to fit into a different subcategory, of which there are a total of thirteen. Their titles, such as Methylthymidine (2008) or M-Fluorobenzylamine (2018), were picked at random from a trade catalogue of biochemical and diagnostic reagents, published by the Australian company Sigma Pharmaceuticals. The idea behind naming each Spot painting after a different drug was that it accorded each piece a sense of being part of an endless series. The tension generated by the dichotomy between the paintings’ abstract forms and titles accords them an unnerving quality, and references other examples of Hirst’s art from the period, such as Two Fucking And Two Watching (1995).

More Spot Paintings Than Imaginable

Hirst has produced well over 1000 Spot paintings in total, with the help of his assistants, since their beginnings in 1988. In recent years, the conceptual and compositional rigidity of the pieces has been superseded by a more relaxed artistic process that has birthed Hirst’s Colour Space paintings. No longer machine-like in their form, the Colour Space works hark what Hirst deems a return to the ‘human element’ and the ‘fallibility of the human hand’, with each painting replete with ‘drips and inconsistencies’. According to rumours in the art world, Hirst is reportedly working on a spot painting comprising one million spots. The work will apparently take around 9 years to complete.

"At the very beginning of my spot painting career I made some messy spots and I hated them, so I perfected them into perfect dots. For 25 years I made perfect dots. At the very end, I went back to the first ones - I made two or three - and I thought, I’m just going to make these messy ones again. And I really liked them."
Damien Hirst

The intangible sense of endlessness that characterises the Spot paintings allows Hirst to infinitely explore harmonious and contrasting colour combinations. More than this however, by titling the Spot works with incomprehensible pharmaceutical drug names, Hirst points to a modern-day reliance on orthodox medical systems and prescriptions that we don’t fully understand. The incessant repetition of dots in this context reflects on the sinister reality of dependency and addiction. At the same time, Hirst’s Spot paintings are an endless money-making machine; their grid-like structure and the availability of studio assistants mean that many thousands of unique prints and paintings can be produced. Injected with tension, the Spot paintings have an ominous appeal due to their deceptively simple aesthetic and unimaginable potential for endlessness.

Speaking of the Spot paintings, artist Michael Craig-Martin – one of Hirst’s tutors at Goldsmiths – has said, "I always thought about [them] as the beginning; who’d have thought that years later there would be over 1000 of them, that they would be all over the world, and that everybody would recognise them."

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