Little Colored Pills: Damien Hirst’s Pharmaceutical Series

Damien Hirst, Albumin, Human, Glycated,1992, household paint and polymer on canvas, 7′ x 9’8″ (Collection UBS)

Coming of artist age in the 70s and 80s, it makes sense that Damien Hirst deliberates tests the boundaries between art, science, and popular culture. Often his work is shocking, downright grisly even as is the case with the animals in formaldehyde. Not lacking panache and naturally gifted in the tactics of buzz marketing, the artist ascended to the commanding heights of the elite art world. In the grand tradition of the atelier, the artist employs more than 100 people to meet the demands of the Hirst-brand business.

Hirst burst on the serious art world scene in the early 1990s with his “spot” paintings, which are comprised of rigorous grids of identically-sized painted dots. In this excerpt from his collection of ideas and obsessions, he describes the intent of his Pharmaceutical series.

I believe that after Pollock created a distance between the brush and the canvas by flinging the paint, there was nowhere to go with painting. . .but people still go to St. Ives, still make action paintings. The urge to be a painter is still there even if the process of painting is still there even if the process of painting is meaningless, old-fashioned. Today there are better ways for artists to communicate to an audience raised on television, advertising and information on a global level.

I often get asked about the spot paintings. . . “The paintings are great/better than your other works, but Richter already did it.” They have nothing to do with Richter or Poons or Bridget Riley or Albers or even Op. They’re about the urge or the need to be a painter above and beyond the object of a painting. I’ve often said that they are like sculptures of paintings.

I started them as an endless series like a sculptural idea of a painter (myself). 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; drug companies do. Hence the title of the series, “The Pharmaceutical Paintings,” and the individual titles themselves: Acetaldehyde (1991), Albumin Human Glycated (1992), Androstanolone (1993), Arabinitol (1994), etc. . . .

. . . I first studied art in Leeds from an emotional, painterly perspective —”paint how you feel”—painting as truth. But lies are a part of life, and painting like life has to take this on board if it’s worth doing. . .

. . . In the spot paintings the grid-like structure creates the beginning of the system. On each painting no two colours are the same. This ends the system; it’s a simple system. No matter how I feel as an artist or painter, the paintings end up looking happy. I can still make all the emotional decisions about colour that I need to as an artist, but in the end they are lost. The end of painting. And I’m still painting; am I a painter? Or a sculptor who paints? Or just an artist? I don’t know. It’s not important. But it is very important that there is an endless series or enough to imply an endless series.

I believe painting and all art should be ultimately uplifting for the viewer. I love colour. I feel it inside of me. It gives me a buzz. I hate taste—it’s acquired. I like the way the paintings look like they could have been made by a big machine—the machine being the artist in the future. .

. . . I once said that the spot paintings could be what art looks like viewed through an imaginary microscope. I love the fact that in the paintings the angst is removed. I have also said that I once took pills when I was a child thinking they were sweets, and several reviewers picked up on this as a reason for the pharmaceutical paintings. 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. We are used to picking out chords of the same colour and balancing them with different chords of other colours to create meaning. This can’t happen. So 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 horror underlying everything. The horror that can overwhelm everything at any moment. . .

—Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, 1997

Want more?

Hirst bio

Gargosian Gallery

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