Since emerging onto the international art scene in the late 1980s, Damien Hirst has created installations, sculptures, paintings, and drawings that examine the complex relationships between art and beauty, religion and science, and life and death. From serialized paintings of multicolored spots to animal specimens preserved in tanks of formaldehyde, his work challenges contemporary belief systems, tracing the uncertainties that lie at the heart of human experience.
In 1988, while studying at Goldsmiths College in London, Hirst curated Freeze, a rolling exhibition in three parts, featuring his work and that of fellow students. This show is considered the debut of the artists who would come to be known as the Young British Artists, or YBAs, whose approach was characterized by a combination of entrepreneurial and oppositional attitudes, the use of found materials, and an interest in shock and spectacle. In the final iteration of Freeze, Hirst included two of his Spot paintings, which he painted directly onto the wall. The Spot paintings (1986–2012), of which there are now more than one thousand, present multicolored spots on white or near-white grounds and are painted by hand in glossy house paint. With these works, Hirst sought to paint as a machine yet allow for the subtle imperfections of the artist’s hand. In 2012 Gagosian showed more than three hundred Spot paintings at once across all eleven of the gallery’s locations.
Like many of Hirst’s series, the Spot paintings evoke various psychological and perceptual dichotomies: they are both calming and unnerving, beautiful and ordinary. A subseries, the Pharmaceutical paintings (1986–2011), features evenly spaced, multicolored circles. The title links these works to the medicine cabinets (1988–2012) and Visual Candy paintings (1993–95), all of which consider the cultural role of prescription drugs, the ways they are advertised, and the many promises that are made to their consumers. The medicine cabinets are filled with the empty packaging of various medications, highlighting the minimalist aesthetic of the boxes and plastic containers. The Visual Candy paintings push the idea of false promises even further. Alluding to movements including Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop art, they are exuberant, colorful paintings with euphoric, perhaps facetious, titles such as Happy Happy Happy (1994), Wowee Zowee (1993), and Super Silly Fun (1993).