20: Damien Hirst, Sulfochlorophenol, 2007
Sulfochlorophenol, 2007. Signed, titled, and dated “2007, Sulfochlorophenol, Damien Hirst” on the reverse and on the stretcher. household gloss on canvas 45 x 93 in. (114.3 x 236.2 cm)
PROVENANCE White Cube, London
These paintings have entered popular culture. You see them in advertisements, on clothes, on cars. They’ve become part of our visual vocabulary. DAMIEN HIRST (Damien Hirst, quoted in C. Vogel. “Damien Hirst’s Spot Paintings Will Fill All 11 Gagosians”, The New York Times, December 13, 2011). Damien Hirst’s “spot paintings”—a form he has returned to on many occasions in the past twenty-five years—gleam as exemplary stalwarts of his internationally recognized oeuvre. Their omnipresence in the art world is topped only by their transcendence into the world of commercial art, advertising, and beyond; they walk the razor sharp line between renowned examples of the contemporary art market and universal symbols of the enduring value of modern painting. The present lot, Sulfochlorophenol, 2007, contains all of the quintessential elements of Hirst’s famed series—chromatic beauty, patterned regularity, and considerable size. Yet it also assumes many of the conceptual paradoxes that make Hirst’s body of work a study in depth and meaning. It is at once a celebration—of the simplicity of color, of the miracles of medical science, and of the power of painting in an age that is futuristic in its media. Yet it is also revelatory in its sinister underpinnings—in the deeper complexities of its subject, in its visual illusions, and in its reflection on society’s medicinal dependence. As Hirst’s spot paintings have recently filled Larry Gagosian’s worldwide galleries in a twenty five year retrospective exhibition, it is obvious that this specific artistic project is among the most enduring and recognized in contemporary art history. The present lot hails from 2007, at a time when Hirst was about to announce his first retirement from the series. In terms of artistic branding, Hirst has succeeded in making a spot painting synonymous with his name and vice versa. In turn, his pictures have become some of the most prized in the world. Yet the value of the spot paintings lies not in their fame alone; their unique combination of accessibility and complexity of subject engenders an appeal that transcends myriad demographic boundaries. It is not coincidental that Hirst’s most famous project is also the most neatly packaged vessel for his provocative artistic ideals. In the dot paintings, Hirst presents us with a seemingly aesthetically simple surface. Either few or many colored dots cover the surface of his canvas, equidistant on all sides by the measure of their diameter. Each title cues us into the meaning of the dots presented to us: the title is a chemical, compound, or element employed in modern medicine. The number of painted dots represents the chemical compound element in the title. Before us, we witness accurate molecular structure magnified millions of times. Yet as the viewer continues his visual adventure with Hirst’s canvas, he will notice that each color is never repeated, creating chromatic chaos on the canvas. In addition, this disharmony underlies Hirst’s embattled relationship with modern medicine: an institution in which, with the prospect of immortality, we place our unabashed faith. Sulfochlorophenol, 2007, faces the viewer with a calculated prowess. Its visual splendor stretches nearly eight feet wide, each enamel dot three inches in diameter. As the gleaming white enamel provides a neutral but radiant ground for the true subjects of the picture, the individual dots seem to both cluster in chromatic similarity and simultaneously disband as the viewer’s eyes struggle to find unity among the idiosyncracy of every dot’s color. Hirst’s palette encompasses a kaleidoscopic range of color: a pale, nearly white circle in the upper center of the painting threatens to completely dissolve into the background, while a nearly pitch-black dot nearby affirms itself with abandon. On the opposite edge, beautiful shades of powder blue and sea-green lie adjacent to each other, presenting the viewer with placid color relationships that act as a spoil to the disharmony at large. Still elsewhere, we witness chromatic violence of the highest degree: blazing green and burnt orange grapple with each other, lending yet another tale to the infinitely varied anecdotes of Hirst’s painting. As the viewer takes a step back to observe the entirety of the picture, a curious and unsettling visual phenomenon presents itself. Rather than remain in their two-dimensional boundaries, the many dots pop and recede, evoking somewhat of a dizziness in the viewer as he tries to regain the visual stability of the painting when viewed up close. But rather than spoil the gorgeous intensity of the present lot’s color spectrum, the unease of the viewer cues him into the ominous subtext of Hirst’s underlying artistic message. As we scrutinize the subject of the present lot, Sulfochlorophenol, 2007, we see a key example of Damien Hirst’s perpetual investigation into the meaning and workings of medical science. In chemistry, Sulfochlorophenol is a sodium calcium salt, a compound used specifically in modern medicine in spectroscopy, which is a technique of discovering buried elements based on their response to specific types of radiation. These chemicals are quite valuable, making up a large part of the corporate medical world. In 2009 alone, the consumption of Niobium topped $150 million. As for its use, Niobium is an instrumental element in the superconducting magnets of MRI machines. In the midst of this advanced chemical nomenclature, we find ourselves knee-deep in the same trenches of scientific complexity that evoke violent frustration in many of us. Hirst damns us in our exploration of his subject to a confounding world of pseudonyms; the endlessly complex world of modern medicine gleams miraculously on its surface, yet it adopts a more mundane bureaucracy in its smallest working parts. The most miniscule aspects of medical science are absent of any romance, their four and five syllable citizens tending instead toward something more Orwellian. Hirst boldly stamps the present lot with his most biting and eternal artistic tenet: provocation. Once we bow to the offer of his enticing title, Hirst manages to render most of our understandings of medicine obsolete: we do not owe our health to the X-Ray or MRI machine, but to the infinitesimal chemicals present in every working part. Much as electrical power is the invisible current of technology, Hirst shows us in Sulfochlorophenol, 2007, that medical technology has an invisible currency of its own. Superficially they’re happy paintings, but then there is this underlying uneasiness. You lose your boundaries because they are hard to focus on. Do you focus on the grid or the individual spots or the painting as a whole? Once you start really looking, you get lost. DAMIEN HIRST (Damien Hirst, quoted in C. Vogel. “Damien Hirst’s Spot Paintings Will Fill All 11 Gagosians”, The New York Times, December 13, 2011).