Coming on with the whoosh of a pop song—and maybe fading like one, too—this is your show of shows at your gallery of galleries. Four years and who knows how much coverage after his last New York extravaganza, Damien Hirst—the one true pop-star artist—is back, inaugurating Larry Gagosian’s immense new 22,000-square-foot digs. And guess what? Hirst is not down, and not out. He’s bigger, more uneven, and better than ever.
Hirst’s primary objective is to make something—anything—happen. What’s so disconcerting for Americans, perhaps, is that he’s more interested in effect than in what we might call transformation; outside matters more than inside. His third New York solo show is staggeringly corporate, breathtakingly professional, eager to entertain. Everything is grandiose, theatrical, polished, and pleasing. Art and money are fused at an atomic level; exhibition and exhibitionism merge. It’s not an insult to say much of this work would blend in at Epcot Center, museums of science and industry, surgical colleges, restaurants, malls, or the Smithsonian.
Only, there’s so much bullshit surrounding Hirst that opinions polarize. People dismiss him out of hand, sight unseen. Several art-world big shots told me they had no interest in seeing his exhibition. A close acquaintance warned, “It’s the kind of show friends stop being friends over.” It was also the kind of opening where people separated in the crowd called one another on cell phones, while Salman Rushdie and Martha Stewart made their way through the throng.
If you’re willing to suspend your art-world cool for a while, you can actually riff on what some of his new work might be about. Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results, and Findings (also the show’s title) consists of two clear glass vitrines, each about the size of a refrigerator laid on its back. Both have scores of Ping-Pong balls being whipped around by blowers. These lotterylike machines recapitulate our lives: We’re tossed all over, everything is chaos, yet a hidden metaphysical calculus—the sum of gravity, bounce, chance, and air—might explain it all. Visually, it’s hypnotic, constantly changing. Some of the balls are damaged, a few are stranded, all are aging. The animating force is ever present but never visible.
Or take the two giant tanks filled with water, live fish, and gynecologists’ chairs. Both are cinematic, though the one with black and white bottom feeders is somber, while the other—containing a colorful all-male contingent—is more whimsical. Any thoughts about formalism, sex, birth, abortion, Jeff Koons, or the out-of-body strangeness of a visit to the doctor are annulled when Hirst pushes this into one-liner land, saying, “Women smell of fucking kippers.”
Some would say that after a strong start, Hirst is mired in a mannerist phase. And there’s truth to this: Production values have been upped, but materials haven’t changed. Vitrines, medical equipment, drugs, found objects, skeletons, and Ping-Pong balls still predominate. Now, little more than an entrepreneur, a brand name, and a parody of an artist, Hirst has broken his realism into surrealism. Set on Recycle, stuck in a super-self-conscious, self-imitative mode, he carts out his tired themes of Man, Woman, Life, Death, Infinity. But instead of a dead shark in formaldehyde, we get those two tanks of live fish; in place of real cut-up animals, fake cut-up cadavers; a white beach ball floats over a bed of knives, rather than a colored one suspended over no knives.
But none of this matters. Hirst’s work has always been derivative; that’s one of its strengths. His art is an original mélange, a mutant sprung from virtually every movement that preceded it. Call it Goth Minimalism: Donald Judds filled with creepy stuff. Some pieces may be duds, many are stagy, but this show is far from a flop.
In some ways, it’s marvelous. What looked like mannerism is closer to baroque. The gallery has been transformed into a monumentally decorative totality. Everything’s in service of the whole, subordinate to overall effect, designed to persuade. Walls have been painted with enormous blue graph-paper grids that give the show scale, encompass it, and throw all the work into a hyperscientific realm. On repeated visits, the totality dissipates; but even if it wears thin, Hirst is in pursuit of something everyone understands: happiness. Which is the real content of his work. Content—not form or subject matter—is what you can’t see in a work of art, its essence, the soul in the machine. Maybe it’s what Judd meant when he said, “The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what’s interesting.” And Hirst’s whole certainly presents interesting qualities.
In addition to his ability to wed art and money, the three most available contents in Hirst’s work are its ambition, confidence, and Warholian-Wagnerian vision of the artist as something more than a maker of things. Even when Hirst fails, he fails flamboyantly. (The crucified skeleton with floating Ping-Pong ball eyes is reminiscent of late Dalí.) Hirst raises ambition to Napoleonic levels. He makes an artist like Julian Schnabel seem kind of old-fashioned. Hirst has a drive to lead, yet he’s willing to play the fool.
Detractors say Hirst is not influencing younger artists. On a stylistic level, they’re right. On a transcendental level, they’re wrong. Two weeks ago, Alexander McQueen’s spring show—staged within a glass cell—concluded with the models destroying some outfits. Ask anyone on the London scene, “Did Damien set this in motion? Is he one of the reasons for the new Tate?” and you’ll see how much influence he’s had. He’s their prophet and deliverer, their Elvis and ayatollah. To his supporters, Hirst is an inspiration and a lightning rod; to his critics, he’s a black sheep and bad egg.
Whatever he is, I think they see content in him that we can’t. Something unknowably, irrevocably British: formed in the primordial interstices between Johnny Rotten’s ground-down teeth; steeped in Thatcher and Catholicism; hammered on the anvil of England’s dreaming and lost empire. It’s aggression, self-exploitation, glee, coyness, the attempt to overturn hierarchy, and a thousand imported strains of American Pop all rolled into one. Seasoned with Francis Bacon, Ed Kienholz, and Koons, the whole potion is freeze-dried by the icy breath of Andy Warhol and laced with rude English ladishness.
Which brings us to the bullshit, the bad-boy myth, or what could be called Hirst’s anticontent. No matter how hard you look, there’s not a trace of the drunken, profligate, drug-taking, hotel-room-smashing, craziness-at-the-Groucho Club stuff—the degradation you sense in a second in front of a great Bacon painting (though both artists are histrionic). In fact, Hirst’s is some of the cleanest, least sexual work around. Everything’s organized and pristine; cases are clean, surfaces spotless; garbage bags are neatly tied; air fresheners are placed about; pills are arranged in tidy rows. His giant anatomical painted-bronze statue of a man doesn’t even have genitals. There is no dread, no terror in Hirst’s art. All his efforts to stave off the hex of death, in other words, have worked. Now Hirst’s work is about effervescence, independence, and delight.