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Damien Hirst at the Norton

Post #741 • February 28, 2006, 10:53 AM • 22 Comments

Mark Rosenthal, curator at the Norton, begins an essay of Damien Hirst's Bilotti Paintings with this:

For a supposed provocateur of the English art world, Damien Hirst (born 1965) is a remarkably philosophical and canny artist. Witness his thematic concerns: science, religion, and life and death, along with the aesthetic conventions of painting - still life and portraiture. Here is an artist who is wedded to the eternal verities.

Or if you prefer, witness instead how the eternal verities have to get hauled out in support of his work. Nothing less than the great problems of existence will do, because as objects, they fail loudly and obviously.

Damien Hirst (British, born 1965): Luke, 2004, from The Bilotti Paintings. Butterflies and household gloss on canvas with mixed media 139 1/2 by 106 3/4 x 4 inches (353.5 by 271 by 10 cm).

Carlo Bilotti commissioned the works, four abstracted portraits of the Evangelists, for a now-abandoned project for a meditation pavillion chez Bilotti in Palm Beach. Someone (Jerry Saltz?) remarked that Hirst's primary artistic talent was copying Jeff Koons. As Hirst began painting a few years ago (or had other people painting for him), he had to switch over to copying Damian Loeb. Now, faced with the challenge of rendering something emotive, he's channelling Fred Tomaselli, complete with glued-on pills.

A long career (by contemporary art world standards) of sad-making unoriginality and posturing informs these works. The figures, rendered in sandy, dark silhouettes, hover unconvincingly on color-coded backgrounds. Real butterflies, pens, and razor blades provide filler for the empty areas. Hirst wrote Latin excerpts from the New Testament on the sides of the paintings, which the viewer can read via mirrors that lie in the interior borders of the exquisite frames. When the frames outperform the paintings they surround, you have a problem.

These paintings clarify why Hirst's works in general come off so inadequately. One could make a shopping list of qualities that reside in major works: large scale, important themes, surprising use of materials, and so on. But one cannot reverse-engineer a major work from the shopping list, and that's exactly what Hirst tries to do. The shopping list comes from inspired labor, not the other way around. You can't simply glue profundity to the canvas.

Rosenthal goes on to interpret the work for you in his essay. The butterflies represent the brevity of life, the flat backgrounds refer back to Ellsworth Kelly, the pens refer to the subjects' authorship of the Gospels, the pills and razors evoke martyrdom. Witness, again, the shopping-list approach. He assumes, perhaps along with the artist, that one-by-one decoding of the elements, connecting each to a great theme or important precedent in art history, will reveal the paintings as great works. If only art, interpretation, or the exercise of taste were so simple.




February 28, 2006, 12:04 PM

Ah, profundity! Ah, Serious Subject Matter! Ah, "Look, Ma, I'm plugged into the timeless themes of Western art"! Well, I suppose you can't blame the guy. It's not his fault if (some) people take him seriously and throw huge wads of money at him. Of course he's going to keep it up and crank it out as long as there are Bilottis around to make it worth his while. And there's a Bilotti born every minute, as I'm sure P.T. Barnum would agree--or was it W.C. Fields? I'm sure Oldpro knows.



February 28, 2006, 12:09 PM

"You can't simply glue profundity to the canvas."

Very so. Verily so.

Hirst isn't said to have discovered the holy images of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the scum between his shower tiles, but it seems a more likely muse than eternal verities.



February 28, 2006, 2:38 PM

The frames are exquisite, aren't they?

I went to the Norton just yesterday and saw them myself! For anyone who is interested in frames, I highly recommend a trip to the Norton. Not only are the Hirst frames lovely, there are several American paintings with fine framing techniques. Offhand, I can point frame-afficionados toward the Jacob Lawrence, the O' Keefes, and one of the Monets--luckily, the three frames I've indicated off the top of my head as being of interest are attached to some lovely works.

As for the Hirsts in question, I recommend viewing the contents of the frames from outside of the room--in the next gallery. It's really the best view.


Marc Country

February 28, 2006, 3:02 PM

... the pills and razors evoke martyrdom...

To whom? I personally can't think of any martyrs who I associate with pills, or razor blades. Hollywood suicides, maybe... Someone, help me out here.

It's a shame Franklin doesn't have the frames in his image here... I've always wanted to see latin text reflected in a mirror. I guess I better go buy a plane ticket.



February 28, 2006, 3:40 PM

For me pills evoke getting over a headache and razors evoke shaving, but then I have never been a very profound person.



February 28, 2006, 3:43 PM

BTW when I first looked at the image I thought Julian Schnabel did it. It looks a lot like some of his 80s work and the approach is very similar.



February 28, 2006, 3:49 PM

Oh, one more thought, it is just the right time for Hirst to get deep and philosophical. Now that he has been the bad boy he can "mature" and everyone can say stuff just like Rosenthal said in the paragraph above. It is a good career move, like actors that do sleaze to get famous and then say "I really want to do Shakespeare".



February 28, 2006, 5:07 PM

Actually, there must be a Profundity for Dummies out in print by now. I'll check at Barnes & Noble next time I go. This sort of work is just the thing one would concoct after reading such a primer.

It's amazing (OK, predictable) that there is always someone (Rosenthal here) prepared to wax rhapsodic over practically anything. I know it's useless to decry that, but "wedded to the eternal verities"? Isn't there a law somewhere against such pompous abuse of the language?

Well, on to Barnes & Noble. I have Serious Work to do.



February 28, 2006, 6:28 PM

Franklin, on second thought, I must object to your review. Such cynically calculated drivel as this Bilotti business is beneath the notice you've given it and the time and effort you put into writing about it. There's really nothing more to be said about Hirst, just as there's no point reviewing some tired old comedy skit that's just a retread of weak SNL material. His 15 minutes are up, and I think he knows it, even if he can still make out like a bandit--but so can Britto.



February 28, 2006, 6:38 PM

Everything means something if you look at it close enough, I always say.



February 28, 2006, 6:55 PM

For an installation view with the frames, see these pages at Larry Gagosian Except for the butterflys which don't show up all that well in a jpeg, my first thought was that I was looking at a rehash of formalist or sensibility abstraction from days of yore. I suppose the pasties and the mongo frames bring the work up to date conceptually but I'm still troubled by the Latin inscriptions which seem dated. From the jpegs I have no clue what the true colors of the paintings are but I think that if he had spray painted (aluminium maybe) little fuzzy dots, allowing the paint to make some tasty drips, over the collage elements it might have tied all the pieces together in a more cohesive way emphasizing the metaforic content of his vision. As it stands, all I can say is that they are modestly big paintings in even bigger frames with writing in a dead language on them. Do you suppose that maybe the frames are the art and the paiontings are just holding them up on the wall. TIG



February 28, 2006, 7:40 PM

Ah, Larry Gagosian. The very name gives me the creeps. But then again, I'm just not with the program. It must be a certified, officially sanctioned, card-carrying scenester thing.


Harlan Erskine

February 28, 2006, 7:41 PM

I think this is vaguely off/on topic but this movie looks relevant to this discussion.



February 28, 2006, 7:46 PM

Oh, and Ahab (#10), be careful. Just like a lie, an idiotic notion, repeated often enough, can come to to be taken for the truth.



February 28, 2006, 11:29 PM

Tell me, George,What's a meta for?



March 1, 2006, 12:45 AM

Thanks for the link, George. Incarnations of the four evangelists are not all to be found in bathroom tiles - some can be found in the storm door screen. And not just metaforicly.

Remember the good things Franklin's proverbial retarded brother sometimes says, Jack? That was one of them.


Marc Country

March 1, 2006, 3:24 AM

I liked Harlan's link better.

I just started reading "Picasso: Creator and Destroyer" by Arianna Huffington (?), and came across this relevant quote:

"A good painting," he explained, "ought to bristle with razor blades."

I don't know whether Hirst has ever read this particular quote, or even the Gospels for that matter, but I am pretty sure that neither should be taken literally.



March 1, 2006, 7:28 AM

Daniel Clowes's Art School Confidential is required reading for anybody who has been there.



March 1, 2006, 3:26 PM

Ha, Hirst !

I have seen these works 1995 in London, so it is already a sort of art history (I hope these are no new works in that show, then I am wrong.)

I really like the pills, in various size, the drugstore cupboards are some of his best pieces in my opinion, and I really liked the various works with the cigarette butts.

I found the butterfly pieces much weaker. How can one destroy and kill that much of those beautiful creatures for in the end very bad artworks ? This of course was akind of his special strategy to embaress, to fall out of the rest of the art crowd.

I am wondering about your discussion a little at this time?

Razorblades are in fact a very bad instruments. You can really hurt. I know of cases in the 1988 in Kiev, Ukraine when youngsters robbed trains,trams and buses right in the city by threatening to cut the throat of the driver with a simple razorblade.

Here in the Caucasus its also a cheap way to kill your neighbours nasty watch dog by feeding him with a couple of beefsteaks with razorblades inside.



March 1, 2006, 3:32 PM

that movie trailer was great. thanks for the laugh.



March 1, 2006, 3:34 PM

i cannot tell a thing from the hirst images, so i suppose seeing in person is the best way to judge. but i am agreeing with most of you this time. they seem to be weak and quite forgettable.



March 2, 2006, 9:48 PM

Outframing Damien: Shimon Okshteyn at the Stux Gallery in NYC.I made the round of openings this evening, starting a little early to look arouns. Without a doubt this was the mostgarish show I've seen in awhile. The gallery pics do not show the biggest works or sculptures but trust me, they were over the top, pushing the idea of ironic into pure ick



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