I like it when people love my art. I like it when they hate it. I don’t want them to ignore it.
Born in 1965 in Bristol, England, groundbreaking, conceptual artist Damien Hirst was raised in Leeds by a strict, single mother who attempted to quash early signs of rebellion in her son. This included reprimanding the young Hirst for getting caught shoplifting twice, cutting his bondage trousers into pieces, and melting his Sex Pistols vinyl album on the kitchen stove. Nonetheless, Hirst was encouraged to pursue drawing, by both his mother and an art teacher at Allerton Grange School. After briefly attending art school at Jacob Kramer College in Leeds, Hirst moved to London and worked for two years on various building sites prior to studying Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, during which time he worked as an assistant at a mortuary and Anthony d'Offay's gallery.
In 1988, while a student at Goldsmiths College, Hirst staged a three-part exhibition, Freeze, which featured his own work and compositions by fellow students, such as Angus Fairhurst, Sarah Lucas, and Michael Landy. This show acted as a launching pad for a loose, iconoclastic grouping that would come to be known as the Young British Artists (YBAs), who were simultaneously self-promotional and antagonistic toward the norms of the art world. They were also keen to shock viewers and create a spectacle around their creative output and artistic personae. Moreover, the YBAs were fond of employing found materials and recasting common objects in a new light. For Freeze, Hirst applied two of his Spot paintings directly onto the wall. Begun in 1986, and now totaling over 1,000 in all, the works in the Spot series each feature a plenitude of colored circles rendered by hand with glossy house paint onto a white or off-white ground. At first glance, they appear almost mechanistic in their precision, and yet there are subtle imperfections upon closer examination.
Subsequent series by Hirst also play upon the problematic nature of perception and the ways in which human psychology is ripe for manipulation. Just as the Spot paintings are at once soothing and disorienting, the Pharmaceutical subseries presents a similar spectrum of colored circles that are evenly spaced, offering a controlled mirage. Closely related to these works are the Medicine Cabinet paintings, which consist of postmodern still lifes replete with sleek prescription drug containers and boxes, implicitly commenting on the design ethos and marketing imperatives of the pharmaceutical industry. In a similar vein, Hirst's Visual Candy paintings blend Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop art into a vibrantly upbeat simulacrum of pre-Millennial optimism and indulgence.
Beyond exploring and critiquing consumer culture and aesthetics, Hirst's project delves into questions of life and death. Starting in 1991, his grandiloquently titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living ushered in the awe-inspiring Natural History series. The initial work was a fourteen-foot tiger shark preserved and suspended in a large tank filled with formaldehyde. Additional taxidermied creatures in the series included sheep, a zebra, cows, a dove, and a fabricated unicorn. This series was initially sponsored by the advertising magnate and art collector Charles Saatchi, whose Saatchi Gallery in London hosted the tiger shark exhibit in 1992. In 1991, Hirst also debuted his In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), with real pupas affixed to canvases with glue until they hatched live specimens into the gallery. After winning Tate Britain's Turner Prize for excellence in contemporary art in 1995, Hirst turned London's Pharmacy Restaurant and Bar into a butterfly-themed, immersive installation two years later.
Over the course of the last twenty years, Hirst has continued to push the boundaries of the art market and critical reception. From 2001 to 2008, he painted several dramatic butterfly paintings, wherein thousands of actual wings were patterned into sophisticated mosaics. With For the Love of God in 2007, Hirst cast a human skull in platinum and adorned it with 8,601 diamonds. In 2008, instead of selling through a gallery, Hirst offered several works directly at auction in London via Sotheby's, which yielded nearly $200 million. Major retrospectives of Hirst's work were held at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples in 2004 and at Tate Modern in London in 2012.
To share his collection with the public, Hirst opened the Newport Street Gallery in London in 2015. During the Venice Biennale in 2017, Hirst staged a parallel exhibition at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana entitled Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which showcased an array of large-scale, fantastical sculptures composed of precious metals and stones decorated with shimmering barnacles from an imaginary shipwreck. While generally lauded, detractors felt this Hirst presentation borrowed too freely from the Yoruba tradition of West Africa without proper attribution. More recently, Hirst has returned to his roots with the Veil painting series, which reworks the Spot conceit by softening the active field of circles in a manner suggestive of post-Impressionism while filling the intervening space with an abundance of color.
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