Damien Hirst is a British artist whose name has become synonymous with contemporary art. Since his generative work as a student at Goldsmiths School of Art, Hirst’s production has been boundary‐redefining in nature. Working primarily in installation, painting, sculpture and drawing, Hirst explores the complex relationships between art, beauty, religion, science, life and death. He constantly returns to his foundational interests and themes, which he reworks to develop an innovative visual language. Hirst consequently produces works which extract wide‐ranging visceral reactions from viewers, triggering fears of mortality, leaving them awe‐struck by beauty and inciting child‐like joy.
Colourful spots, animals seemingly frozen in time, anatomical models of pregnant women, glorious butterfly wings and a skull with 8,601 pavé‐set diamonds are some of the defining features of Damien Hirst’s boundary redefining career. Across installation, sculpture, painting and drawing, Hirst explores the complex relationships between art, beauty, religion, science, life and death.
Hirst was born in 1965 in Bristol, grew up in Leeds and moved to London in 1984. While studying at Goldsmiths School of Art from 1986‐89, he curated the group exhibition ‘Freeze’, which launched a new generation of British artists. During this time Hirst also invented two fundamental series: his endless ‘Spot’ paintings, meticulously rendered and perfectly coloured, as well as his ‘Medicine Cabinets’, an early investigation into science and medicine that resurfaces across his oeuvre.
In 1991, Hirst launched another great period of innovation with his ‘Natural History’ series and his most iconic work ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, a four‐metre‐ long tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. These sculptures simultaneously confront viewers with their own mortality and reference futile scientific attempts to circumvent the unavoidable fate of death.
Hirst’s enduring confrontations with death emerge again in his butterfly works. Since his 1991 exhibition ‘In and Out of Love’, which traced and preserved the life cycle of the butterfly, he has continued to readapt the butterfly motif. Hirst produces awe‐inspiring compositions using their wings, as in his ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Mandalas’ series began in 2011. While the former is arranged in stained glass‐like compositions and the latter in concentric circles recollective of eastern religions, both series present the remarkable phenomenon of butterflies existing just as beautiful in death as they are in life.
From 1994 through present day, Hirst has produced his cheery ‘Spin’ paintings. Reminiscent of his mechanical and colour‐focused ‘Spot’ paintings, the ‘Spin’ works are made with minimal artist intervention, the final product reliant on colour choice and force of movement. ‘The joy of colour’ and colour relationships are themes to which Hirst returns, as in ‘Colour Charts’ (2012), ‘Colour Space’ (2016) and ‘Veil’ (2017).
In 2017, Hirst revealed his most ambitious series to date, ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’, 200 works encrusted in coral and barnacles, as if salvaged from an underwater excavation. Once more experimenting with the boundaries of artistic possibility, Hirst recounts their story in the eponymous Netflix documentary.
Across two intensive years of painting, from 2019‐20 Hirst produced ‘Cherry Blossoms’, gestural paintings that depict trees in full bloom. The monumental canvases, which are entirely covered in dense, bright colours, envelope the viewer in a vast landscape that traverses the boundaries of figuration and abstraction. Hirst explains that they ‘are about beauty and life and death…They’re about desire and how we process the things around us and what we turn them into, but also about the insane visual transience of beauty’.
Hirst’s name is synonymous with contemporary art, continually pushing the boundaries of traditional approaches to and conceptions of art. He achieves this through a constant return to his foundational interests and themes, which he reworks to develop an innovative visual language rooted in his fundamental belief that ‘art’s about life and it can’t really be about anything else…there isn’t anything else’.
‘The death of an insect that still has this really optimistic beauty is a wonderful thing’, said Damien Hirst of his awe-inspiring butterfly works. From his generative exhibition in 1991, ‘In and Out of Love’, to his 2020 ‘Rainbow Editions’, Hirst continues to manipulate the beauty of the butterfly in new and captivating ways.
Hirst’s butterflies owe much to the logic of ‘In and Out of Love’, the installation after which the exhibition was named. In a humid gallery space in Soho, London, filled with white canvases, flowers and sugar water, Hirst released butterflies. Throughout the one-month span of the exhibition, the butterflies flew, mated, reproduced and died.
Included in the same exhibition were Hirst’s monochrome butterfly works, candy-coloured canvases which preserve the carnage that ensued in the partnering installation. Here, the dead butterflies are attached to the canvases, however, these works are not sites of horror, but of beauty and hope.
Hirst has developed the butterfly motif in series such as ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Mandala’, which rids butterflies of their hairy bodies, using only their wings. The ‘Kaleidoscope’ works are stained glass-like, with variously coloured butterfly wings arranged into intricate patterns. The ‘Mandala’ works, recollective of eastern religions, similarly arrange the butterfly wings into concentric circles, emanating from the centre outward.
Death and mortality remain consistent themes across Hirst’s oeuvre, admitting ‘I’ve got an obsession with death…But I think it’s like a celebration of life rather than something morbid’. Hirst celebrates life through death using butterflies, insects that represent freedom and hope. Remarkably, butterflies remain just as gloriously beautiful in death as they are in life, as proven by the captivating colours and patterns of the wings that define Hirst’s works. As such, Hirst’s butterflies have come to exist as uplifting and radiant symbols of mortality.
Synonymous with Damien Hirst are his ‘Spots’ paintings, aseries of systematically arranged coloured spots. Since 1986, Hirst has produced variously sized spots on diversely sized and shaped canvases,from large and rectangular to small parallelograms to wall murals. Nonetheless, within each work, the spots remain exactly consistent in size, each distinguishing itself from the next through colour. The result is what Hirst calls ‘an assault on your senses. They grab hold of you and give you a good shaking’.
Hirst’s ‘Spots’ are seemingly mechanical in nature, each a pristine, perfect circle. Yet, they are all hand painted or, as Hirst says, painted ‘by a person trying to paint like a machine’. The spots are evenly spaced across the canvases, with no spots touching, in grid formations recollective of Hirst’s ‘Pill Cabinets’.
Too, the arrangement of coloured spots recalls the logic of household paint charts, each colour slightly different from the previous. Within each ‘Spots’ work, no two colours are repeated, though some are exceptionally similar. The colours themselves and the assignment of the colour relations are decided intuitively, by an aesthetically focused process.
Despite the orderly, seemingly mechanical nature of ‘Spots’, the series is nonetheless underpinned by a sense of chaos. Upon closer study the differences in colours are revealed, destroying any notion of harmony. Speaking of this effect, Hirst stated ‘in every painting there is subliminal sense of unease; yet the colours project so much joy it’s hard to feel it, but it’s there’.
‘Spots’ are an endless series of carefully cultivated works that exploreHirst’s perennial fascination with the potentials of colour relations. ‘To create that structure, to do those colours, and do nothing. I suddenly got what I wanted. It was just a way of pinning down the joy of colour’.
Damien Hirst described his most infamous artwork to date, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991), as a ‘thing to describe a feeling’. This four-metre-long tiger shark launched his formidableseries of formaldehydesculptures, ranging from his ‘Natural History’ series to ‘Sacred Heart’, whichconfront viewers with their inherent fears surrounding death and mortality.
Hirst first conceived of his ‘Natural History’ series in 1989 as a ‘zoo of dead animals’. His animals, ranging from the tiger shark to lambs and cows, are suspended at eye level in vitrines, reminiscent of Donald Judd’s clean Minimalist sculptures. Hirst’s vitrines make use of glass and Perspex to create vast windows into the specimens inside. The concept of the vitrine ‘first came from a fear of everything in life being so fragile’ and ‘to make a sculpture where the fragility was encased’.
The vitrines are filled with formaldehyde, a solution chosen not necessarily for its preservative benefits but to communicate an idea. Too, it also establishes visual connections to water that is particularly evocative in his works containing sea animals. Suspended in this blue liquid, the viewer is reminded of the life the animal once had.
Incorporated across Hirst’s formaldehyde sculptures is Catholic symbolism, alluding to the fraught relationship between science and religion. Theseinclude a dove captured in mid-flight and a bull contorted in pain and pierced with arrows, reminiscent of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.
Hirst’s formaldehyde works have broken ground in contemporary art, presenting new potentials of realism. Too, they provoke visceral reactions, demanding that viewers confront their fears of death, loneliness and abandonment. Yet, they also confuse with their relationship to science and the constant advances that promise to extend life. As such, Hirst’s formaldehyde works powerfully juxtapose permanence with the unavoidable transience of life.
Born out of the realisation that art does not have to be confined to technical skill and representation, from the early 1990s Damien Hirst has produced his ‘Spin’ paintings, works imbued with joy and life.
The idea for Hirst’s ‘Spin’ paintings came froma 1975 episode of the British children’s TV show ‘Blue Peter’, which explains how spin paintings are produced. Initially, Hirst did not consider spin paintings to be art but afterreflecting on his predecessors who were ‘cutting [their ears] off’, he decided that art does not have to come from a dark, intense and tumultuous place.
Hirst experimented with spin art from 1992 and properly began producing works from 1994 when he was living in Berlin. These round, psychedelic works are each granted long, elaborate titles which all begin with ‘Beautiful’ and end with ‘painting’.
The paintings are inherently abstract, recollectiveof Jackson Pollock’s splattering. Unlike traditional painting, they have no discernible top and bottom, an issue that was constantly raised to Hirst. In 1996, he responded in his ‘No Sense of Absolute Corruption’ exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New Yorkby placing his paintings on a rotating mechanism.
Despite their inherent aesthetic of chance, Hirst’s ‘Spin’ paintings recall the mechanical logic of his orderly ‘Spot’ paintings. With no imprint of the artist’s hand in sight, these works are controlled only by colour choice and the quick motion of the machine. Hirst describes the process of making his ‘Spin’ works entirely enjoyable, speaking of them as ‘childish…in the positive sense of the word’.
In process and in final product, Hirst’s ‘Spin’ series defies mainstream conceptions of art, how it should look and be made. Across the series, Hirst instead champions art that ‘sort of implies life’, one that captures action, recalls fond childhood memories and reverberates energy.
MEDICINE AND PILL CABINETS
For his degree show at Goldsmiths School of Art, in 1989 Damien Hirst first revealed his 12 ‘Medicine Cabinet’ sculptures, each named after the songs from the Sex Pistol’s album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’.The sculptures, which later expanded into ‘Pill Cabinets’, reflect Hirst’sperennial fascinations with death and decay that plague humanity, and the scientific attempts to ward off these certainties.
Hirst was inspired by childhood trips to the pharmacy with his mother, which left him fascinatedbythe blindtrust in pharmacists and the view of medicine as a saviour, despite death remaining certain. ‘We all die, so this kind of big happy, smiling, minimal, colourful, confident facade that medicine and drug companies put up is not flawless – your body lets you down, but people want to believe in some kind of immortality’.
Hirst constructed Minimalist wooden cabinets in the shape of a body and filled them with his grandmother’s empty medicine containers.The containers were initially organised according to what part of the body they addressed, however, Hirst later prioritised colour organisation. ‘I wanted it to be kind of human, like with an abdomen and a chest and guts’.
His later ‘Pill Cabinets’ are distinctly more modern, composed ofsleek metal frames with mirrored backgrounds. Individual pills, made from plaster and hand painted, are carefully placed on the shelves and displayed like colourful candy.
Hirst’s cabinets, which he later took to new levels in his installation work, have much to do with trustin medicine, that which Hirst wished people had in art. Even further, it evokes Hirst’s everlasting fascination with the dualities of science and religion, stating ‘science is the new religion for many people. It’s as simple and as complicated as that really’.