“I often get asked about the spot paintings,” said artist Damien Hirst in 1997, interviewed eleven years after he'd begun painting colored dots on white, spacing them systematically and never repeating a color on any one canvas. People would say, “'I love your work, but why do you do those stupid spots? They're not good.”
“Good” wasn't the point. Hirst wanted to be like a scientist. “Art doesn't purport to have the answers; the drug companies do,” he explained. Right now, Hirst's spot paintings, hung in eleven Gagosian Galleries around the world for “The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011,” a multi-part stunt of an exhibition, look more like candy than medicine.
The artist, notorious in the 1990s for displaying severed animal carcasses in cases of formaldehyde and more recently for creating a diamond encrusted human skull worth $100 million (the most expensive art made to-date, titled, fittingly, For the Love of God ), has always been more interested in systems and how to play them than in the actual art objects he makes. The spot paintings themselves are produced through an elaborate system — Hirst hasn't painted one himself since 1993, and his teams of assistants now select the colors for each and apply the enamel to canvas — and you can “play” his system these next few months by signing up to for the “Complete Spot Challenge” and trying to visit all eleven exhibitions before the last one closes on March 17. Anyone who makes it to all locations will receive a personalized, limited edition print that doesn't actually exist yet. Hirst will produce it only when he knows how many people have succeeded. It could be an edition of one, or of twenty.
By the time Beverly Hills' Gagosian opened its chapter of “The Complete Spot Paintings” last night, four hundred people had registered for the challenge. Guests signed up at the opening too, and received their official “Spot Challenge” cards. One art auctioneer reasoned he could finance the international trek by selling off the signed print at the end; then he would essentially be traveling on Hirst's dime.
An attorney from Echo Park admitted he had no intention of trying to win, but if he made it to New York, he could get three more stamps for a total of four, more than any of his friends would have. “It's all relative,” he said. And, after all, you can only put so much effort toward the spots, “some of Hirst's more throw-away works.”
Throw-away or not, the paintings themselves generated far more conversation than the challenge. A UCLA law student pointed out that if you stared into the middle of the smaller paintings for long enough, you'd be overcome with melancholy, and a collector standing near the bar noted that if you crossed your eyes and looked at the bigger ones, the experience was as good as LSD.
“I don't know whether to laugh or cry,” said art consultant Charlie Moffett after walking through all three rooms and stopping near a painting 21 feet wide. “Some of these look like they're still wet.” It was the older, smaller, clearly dry paintings Moffett liked best, particularly one in a gold frame from 1992, before Hirst's assistants took over. In that one, you could see holes from the point the compass made in the middle of each spot. And as sculptor Stanley Kusher noted, the diameters and the edges of each were slightly skewed. As the paintings got bigger and newer, they were emptied out of idiosyncrasy. “You can't keep doing the same thing,” Kusher said. “You can't keep doing what you know.”
But you can if what you want is to make pristinely empty, pristinely easy paintings that advertise only their own consistency.