Damien Hirst's I'm only Sleeping belongs to the significant four-part cycle of Pill Paintings executed in 1990. An undulating and sumptuous sea of cream household paint betrays the shape of numerous submerged pills that have been pushed through the canvas' surface from the back. Crucially, these works announce the very first time Hirst used real medication in pill-form on canvas. This small series of monochrome paintings pioneer a combination of two iconic tenets from Hirst's acclaimed career: the Medicine Cabinets and the Spot Paintings. Evoking the schematic painterly order of Hirst's aptly named Pharmaceutical Paintings (the correct designation for Hirst's corpus of spotted canvases) while incorporating the physical contents of Hirst's Medicine Cabinets into the fabric of its cream monochrome surface, I'm only Sleeping represents a magnificently experimental and highly evocative conjoining of the artist's principle bipartite engagement with art and science.
Paramount in the present early work, the masking of real drugs under a cream blanket offers one of the most rare, subtly expressive and delicate works across the extraordinary breadth of Hirst's oeuvre. What's more, Hirst here evokes a subversive dialogue with the history of monochrome painting. Evoking Piero Manzoni's iconic and groundbreaking corpus of Achromes, Rob Ryman's signature white canvases, whilst also alluding to Yves Klein's monochrome reliefs, I'm only Sleeping takes on the history of Twentieth Century minimalism. By literally injecting art historical tradition with medicinal palliatives, Hirst, with a typical dose of irony, comments on the sublimatory and transcendental pretentions of monochrome painting – a reading further substantiated via the associations of Hirst's very specific choice of title.
In alignment with the first and famous Medicine Cabinets named after the twelve songs on the Sex Pistols' Nevermind the Bollocks album, the concise group of Pill Paintings to which the present work belongs are named after Beatles songs. Indeed, in various interviews, Hirst has affirmed the importance of the fab-four: "the best thing that's ever come out of Britain, or anywhere, is the Beatles" (the artist in: Damien Hirst & Gordon Burn, On The Way To Work, London 2001, p. 200). From the 1966 album Revolver, the song I'm only Sleeping alludes to Lennon's irritation at being woken by McCartney during periods when not on tour and under the influence of drugs, he would spend large amounts of time sleeping, reading or watching television. Containing forty-eight individual pills, this work stands as the very climax of the four-part series of Pill Paintings. The extant three works aptly named after further Beatles songs, respectively contain a cumulative number of pills: I'm so Tired contains twenty-four, I Feel Fine harbours twelve, while I'm Down contains only six. Perhaps alluding to the various stages associated with taking increasing numbers of psychotropic drugs, I'm only Sleeping represents the final soporific stage of self-medication. Akin to the soothing and numbing effect of sedatives, when confronted with these beautifully serene works the viewer feels calmed. In much the same way that a pill can ease the pain, painting can ease the conscience; as Hirst has famously stated: "Art is like medicine - it can heal" (the artist in, Damien Hirst & Gordon Burn, I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London 1997, p. 246).
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