The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Thursday, February 2, 2012

After a few hurried but critical reads, I find myself dissatisfied with Jerry Saltz's recent review of “Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011”. First published in New York Magazine, the review delivers a truncated history of Hirst’s rise to fame and makes some fast and loose comparisons between the artist and other notable creators before dissolving in a vague denouement that offers little conclusion. Much like institutional critique, I believe there is a time and place for art critical critique. It happens to be here and now.

It is a glaring error that Saltz either overlooked or decided not to mention Charles Saatchi's hand in not only bank-rolling the YBA, but also catapulting Hirst to the top of the group in general. Is Pollock's work ever discussed without even a gesture towards Clement Greenberg? Not bloody likely. Frankly, there is enough mystique surrounding Saatchi (a secretive and publicly absent man) that Saltz could have guaranteed himself at least 50 more readers for having dropped his name. In November 2009, BBC Two ran a four episode reality television show called "School of Saatchi", which had students of the Slade competing against each other through a number of art challenges. Living in London at the time and spending most days at the Slade with my roommate, I certainly heard Saatchi's name more often than Hirst's.

But I digress. The fact that Saltz pronounced Hirst as the Elvis of the English art world in the first sentence of his review made me spit out the gluten free pretzel I was eating. Are we really to equate an icon like Elvis with an aggrandised art celebrity like Hirst? Elvis was a revolutionary man who changed the face of Rock n' Roll from his humble digs in Memphis, Tennesse. Hirst made some bold and aggressive moves that garnered him a lot of attention and even more money, and then through branding, the help of Saatchi and public misbehaviour, turned himself into a celebrity. I would have liked to see Mat Collishaw be given such attention. Now there's an artist of the YBA generation whose work I have an inclination for.

In Saltz's defense, he does point out Hirst’s problematic self-branding, pedestrian photography, and the expiry of any interest in his $100 million dollar skull. Moreover, THANK GOODNESS he uses the words "failed series" with regards to what I am assuming are Hirst's Blue Paintings. I saw the full suite of this series at the Wallace Collection (a ballsy move to combine Hirst with Fragonard) and at White Cube Hoxton Square. Hirst, Francis Bacon called. He wants his compositional and figural techniques back.

In the final analysis, my disappointment comes down to the following line: "Hirst isn’t washed up. His ability to fuse art, opticality, material, subject and direct ideas at an almost atomic level says he could surprise us again."

This is a pretty flattering statement that has very little critical analysis to buttress it. Where does the reader find proof of Hirst's synthesis of art, opticality, material, subject, and direct ideas? And at the atomic level? The only real visual analysis of the spot paintings is relegated to the paragraph that names them "spiffy riffs" on Sol Lewitt's '60s formula. So the concept or "direct idea", I suppose, is the authourless art work? Hardly novel. See my essay for the Tate on Rudolf Stingel’s treatment of the same concept here.

Saltz does very little to unpack Hirst’s ideas, which I think is careless. He offers a few token words on opticality ("the colour lifelike") and materiality ("the grid machinelike"), neither of which feel substantiated. Finally, I am guessing the subject of the artist’s paintings is...spots? Lordy. Saltz did not convince me to ever see Hirst’s spot paintings, regardless of the home they are keeping at Gagosian x 11.

Courtesy of Rachel Anne Farquharson, Art Writer for and member of The Ministry of Artistic Affairs.