IMHO: Are not Hirst’s spots merely Rorschach inkblots made by robots?


Perhaps it’s who we follow, but our news feed over much of the past week seems to have been Occupied by all things Damien. (Okay there were some bits on SOPA and the Bushwick gallery scene in there as well, but you get the point.) Aside from the sheer bonanza of articles employing spot-related puns in their titles, Gagosian’s worldwide exhibition of Hirst’s paintings has yielded such a polarized response from artists and critics that each new review seems to be a reaction not only to the paintings themselves, but also to the many reviews that have come before. It has made for some unexpectedly fascinating psychological reading, despite our best efforts at studiously avoiding the whole throwdown.

With no Gagosian in Toronto, we’re momentarily ensconced in a Hirst-free world, for better or worse. (According to Montreal-based Galerie de Bellefeuille, their 2010 exhibition of Hirst’s work at Art Toronto was the first of its kind in Canada). As such we can only speculate on what our response would be in the presence of all those spots. Perhaps it would be not unlike the hallucinatory experience of Yayoi Kusama, who since the 1950s has famously given form to a distorted reality uniquely her own through hundreds of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and installations obsessively blanketed in dots (spots), nets (hollow spots), and, those wildly proliferating tubular forms (or phalluses, as they are often called, and which, if you think about it, are really just more spots, albeit sculpturally extruded into the third dimension…).

Or, perhaps not. We were fortunate enough to actually see Kusama’s exhibition, Love Forever: 1958–1968 at MoMA in 1998, and granted, her particular expression of a spot-covered world is so idiosyncratic and compulsive that questions of authorship or banality never entered the equation.

It does stand to mention however, that critics and curators of the time often characterized Kusama’s ambition in ways somewhat similar to Hirst’s, with a New York Times review by Edward M. Gomez claiming that Kusama “routinely put herself at the center of her art and made special efforts to draw the attention of the news media to her more sensational activities,” and a review for the same paper by Holland Cotter stating “there is no question that a hunger for publicity has fueled Ms. Kusama’s career from the start.” Hmm. Perhaps Hirst and Kusama share some deeper affinity after all….

Plus, kids love their work!

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, or with any of the problems that many have with Hirst and his work (egotism, extravagance, use of assistants, banality, general douchery). All this talk is just that, and it’s good for art. If, as we humbly submit, Hirst’s spots are just generic and arbitrary enough to qualify as our generation’s (perfectly round, candy-coloured) Rorschach inkblots, it means we can still at least glean interesting insights into the psyches and motivations of those writing about them, as well as perhaps a broader understanding of the times they are writing in, if not about the state of contemporary painting these days.

Back to Bushwick, anyone?

Linked below, as a public service, are some of the many reviews we’ve seen of Gagosian’s international extravaganza, Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986–2011. As a bonus, here is the somewhat amazing transcript of an interview Hirst did with Kusama for the Robert Miller Gallery in 1998 (unearthed by Christina Ruiz for The Art Newspaper—full article also linked below):

Damien Hirst: There seems to be so much happiness in your work, yet so much sadness in your writings.

Yayoi Kusama: I don’t think my work projects happiness as you suggested in your question. I have been able somehow to live to this day without committing suicide simply because I have used my art as a shield against my illness. As for my writings, I write crying, my heart filled with feelings of frustration. It is the aesthetics of tragedy.

Hirst: Do you feel lonely being an artist?

Kusama: I am very lonely being an artist and in my own life. It is almost unbearable, especially when I hear the sound of tree leaves trembling in a wind storm. When I go to the roof top of a high-rise building, I feel an urge to die by jumping from it. My passion for art is what has prevented me from doing that.

—from “Two Artists Connect the Dots” by Christina Ruiz for The Art Newspaper

In these two interesting interviews, the artists speak more fully for themselves:

Damien Hirst, recently interviewed by Anthony Haden-Guest for GalleristNY
Yayoi Kusama, interviewed by Grady Turner in 1999 for Bomb Magazine

With exhibitions currently on view in Paris, Osaka, and Brisbane (pictured above, for which she employed assistants—er, children—to obliterate a room), plus a soon-to-open show at the Tate Modern in London, Yayoi Kusama is blowing up big time (again):

Exhibition information at the Tate Modern website
Kusama’s own website

And finally, reviews and commentary on Hirst’s spots from around the interwebs, in no particular order:

“Spot On” by Peter Schjeldahl for The New Yorker
“Hirst, Globally Dotting His ‘I’” by Roberta Smith for The New York Times
“It’s All Over” by Katy Siegal for Artforum
“Damien Hirsts’s Spot Paintings Take Over the World” by Blake Gopnik for Newsweek, via The Daily Beast
Archive of Blake Gopnik’s January 2012 Daily Pics (four of which are devoted to Damien), also for
The Daily Beast
“Spots, Sharks, Maggots and Money” by Jerry Saltz for Artnet
“Seeing spots, seeing red, but in the black” by B.K. for The Economist
“Hirsts Spotted at Gagosian” by Will Brand for Art Fag City
”Damien Hirst’s Power to Piss People Off” by Emily Colucci for Hyperallergic
“Spotty Comments of the Day: Hirst-a-palooza” by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic
“Dr. Damien Hirst or: How I Learned to Stop Grouching and Love the Spot Paintings (Almost)” by
Marina Galperina for ANIMALNew York

Plus more, from a thoughtfully compiled list of reviews from each of the cities in which the paintings are being displayed, at “Damien Hirst’s ‘Complete Spot Paintings’: 10 Reviews” by Andrew Russeth for GalleristNY

images, from top to bottom:
Andrew Russeth from New York, New York (Damien Hirst) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Yayoi Kusama, installation view,
Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (or Floor Show), 1965
Yayoi Kusama, installation view, 
Dots Obsession–New Century, 2000
Yayoi Kusama, installation view,
The Obliteration Room, 2012, photo by Natasha Harth/Rex Features

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