"Art doesn't purport to have all the answers; the drug companies do. Hence the title of the series, The Pharmaceutical Paintings, and the individual titles of the paintings themselves... Art is like medicine, it can heal."
A colossal expanse of coloured spots painted upon a stark white canvas, the kaleidoscopic Hydrastinine exemplifies British artist Damien Hirst’s Pharmaceutical Paintings, a sub-series of his iconic Spot Paintings. Suspended in thirteen rows and fifteen columns, each of the one hundred and ninety-five discs executed in household gloss paint are uniquely distinct in hue. When viewed together, the shades span an impressive chromatic spectrum. Created in 2007, this work was exhibited in the 2012 exhibition The Complete Spot Paintings: 1986-2011 hosted across eleven gallery spaces worldwide by Gagosian Gallery, which fulfilled Hirst’s longstanding vision to exhibit as many Spot Paintings at once as possible. As a later specimen from the defining body of work that first brought the artist acclaim, this painting represents a culmination of a seminal series which was first seen in the legendary Freeze exhibition of 1988 and concluded with the artist’s first major UK retrospective at Tate Britain in 2012. Executed nearly twenty years after the first Spot Paintings, Hydrastinine broadcasts a lyrical beauty underscored by the medical advancements of the past two decades.
Science, identified by Hirst as the defining belief-system of the contemporary age, occupies a position of authority to rival that of religion. First conceived alongside his iconic Medicine Cabinets during his days as a student at Goldsmiths University, Hirst’s Pharmaceutical Paintings are medicinal and forensic. They are imbued with the same measured, rational order and pleasing cogency as the Medicine Cabinets – a modern day devotional paean to the life-giving promise of modern science. By infusing art with the clinical sterility and implied reassurance of pharmaceutical products, Hirst substitutes the role of religion as comforter against death with the confident aesthetic of pharmacology. “I started [the Spot Paintings] as an endless series”, explains the artist, “a scientific approach to painting in a similar way to the drug companies’ scientific approach to life. Art doesn’t purport to have all the answers; the drug companies do. Hence the title of the series, the Pharmaceutical Paintings, and the individual titles of the paintings themselves… Art is like medicine, it can heal” (Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London 1997, p. 246).
The first Spot Painting, dating from 1986, featured loose, hand-painted spots executed “with drippy paint, not minimal at all” (Damien Hirst cited in ‘New Damien Hirst exhibition waves goodbye to his famous spot paintings – with more spot paintings’, It’s Nice That, 23 March 2018). Following Freeze in 1988, during which Hirst painted two near-identical arrangements of coloured spots (titled Edge and Row) onto the walls of the warehouse where the exhibition was held, Hirst gradually refined his creative process. He subsequently employed assistants to create the paintings and proceeded to remove all physical evidence of human intervention from the works; for example, the compass point at the centre of each circle was removed, until the works became increasingly formally flawless and immaculately sterile, appearing to have been constructed “by a person trying to paint like a machine” (Damien Hirst, On the Way to Work, Faber and Faber 2001, p. 90). Starting from the early 1990s, Hirst started naming these paintings after chemicals listed in the Sigma Chemical Company’s catalogue Biochemical Organic Compounds for Research and Diagnostic Reagents, thereby directly associating the series with the ubiquitous phenomenon of drugs as the all-powerful modifier of nature.
Though purporting life-giving properties, such chemicals can be highly toxic and potentially fatal substances, carrying menacing deathly undertones even in their medicinal applications. It is in this way that the Spot Paintings encapsulate Hirst’s enduring and complex exploration of death. When these works were first produced, the critic Jerry Saltz commented: “The names of these drugs conjure a vision of human misery and dread. With every drug comes a reference to a particular sickness, along with a list of side effects… These drugs form an analogue for the mysteries of the human body and its vast hermetic complexity” (Jerry Saltz, Art in America, June 1995, cited in Ibid., p. 173). Disseminated via a simple schema of geometric logic, the controlled, emotionless self-restriction of Hirst’s candy coloured grid belies an unsettling and fractured viewing experience: “If you look closely at any one of these paintings a strange thing happens; because of the lack of repeated colours there is no harmony... in every painting there is a subliminal sense of unease; yet the colours project so much joy it’s hard to feel it, but it’s there” (the artist in Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, Op. Cit., p. 246).
The Spot Paintings’ seemingly simple use of colour is essential to the series’ uncanny ability to conjure up disorienting opposing associations such as health versus disease, life versus death. Hirst recently articulated this opposition as: “The simplest, cleanest thing can provoke an emotional response […] despite the grid, they always look happy, although there’s an unease there too because the colours don’t repeat when you expect them to” (the artist cited in ‘New Damien Hirst exhibition waves goodbye to his famous spot paintings – with more spot paintings’, It’s Nice That, 23 March 2018). The completely arbitrary and infinite colour series is integral, as Hirst explains: “Mathematically, with the Spot Paintings, I probably discovered the most fundamentally important thing in any kind of art. Which is the harmony of where colour can exist on its own, interacting with other colours in a perfect format” (Damien Hirst, On the Way to Work, Op. Cit., p. 120). Elsewhere he declares: “I love colour. I feel it inside me. It gives me a buzz” (Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, Op. Cit., p. 246).