Anthony Haden-Guest first met Damien Hirst in New York in the early 1990s. Today, exhibitions of Mr. Hirst’s “Spot Paintings” open at all 11 Gagosian Galleries worldwide.
This interview with Damien Hirst took place yesterday, in a conference room in the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street in Manhattan. Mr. Hirst was wearing a scarlet wool hat, a Joe Strummer T-shirt, two fistfuls of skull rings. We sat at a glass and metal table.
DAMIEN HIRST: So how are you, Anthony?
ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST: I had a hernia operation on Friday
[I indicate the right groin]
DH: The thing is, I’ve always told you you’ve got to make love, not shag. It’s shagging gives you hernias.
AHG: I think I got it dancing, as a matter of fact.
DH: Yeah! That’ll do it too.
AHG: You used to dance.
DH: Yeah! But I’ve lost the moves. Five years!
AHG: Five years what?
DH: Since I had a drink.
DH: Yeah! I used to jump on tables and stuff. You wake up in the morning and you’ve got bruises. Your back hurts. I broke my heel jumping off a bar. I used to be sort of proud of all the injuries. I came away from a skiing trip in a wheelchair. But you get older.
AHG: So to the spot paintings. You actually got the idea for the show in Gagosian on Madison.
DH: Yeah! Because I saw all the galleries all over the world and what art was showing there.
AHG: Was that in the elevator or outside?
DH: Both. Just outside the elevator and by the girls at the desk. That big wall. There were nine galleries and nine different artists. And I was like, what if that was all my name? I was looking to do a museum show of spots. I don’t think there’s many artists that could do all the galleries. And only my spot paintings really would work and fill all the spaces. It was kind of a unique thing.
AHG: You couldn’t do it with the spin paintings?
DH: I think it would be repetitive, you know? After two galleries, you’d kind of lose interest. The spots are always new. There’s not so much noticeable changes over the years in the spin paintings.
AHG: There’s spots here I’ve never seen before. [I indicate the gallery space through the door.] I’ve never seen the tiny ones. I’ve never seen the huge ones. I saw a white spot in Peter Marino’s office. I said, “I bet you commissioned that?” He said yes.
DH: Yeah. There are a few. Not many. I tried a few of the white spots. Single-color spots. And I did some black and white.
AHG: One of the first art interviews I did was with Bridget Riley. And I got her wrong. I related her work to Victorian puzzles with the dancing dots. She told me, no, it was all about Seurat.
AHG: When we first talked about the spot paintings you mentioned Larry Poons, Richter, Polke. You’ve talked about your dad painting blue dots on your front door. Was there a light-bulb moment?
DH: I’d done collages like Kurt Schwitters. Then I had taken away the backboard and arranged the objects on the wall. And I thought that was a massive breakthrough. That must have been in the early ‘80s. But then I remember thinking Tony Cragg was doing this ten years ago. I was thinking I was moving forwards but actually I’d gone back. I was nowhere near up to date. Then I did the cardboard box piece in the Tate. Just pasting cardboard boxes on the wall. And then I thought, well, this is really retro again. It’s like Schwitters. It’s nostalgia. It’s a little bit like Julian Opie. I was always walking around, looking for things, and picking them up and putting them in paintings. Or painting on top of them. Or sticking them on backboards. It was always to do with things found in the real world. Arranging found objects.
And then the spot painting! I just got rid of everything! That was a shock. I didn’t want to use canvas. I didn’t want them to be associated with making a painting really. So I just did them on the wall. That was my original intention. I was never going to do any of them on canvas, they were always going to be on the wall only, and that was it. It would be as if a machine had come along. You can imagine what it would have looked like if a machine had just rolled along the wall and printed it and gone away. So it was almost doing away with the artist as well.
And then, after doing, I don’t know, maybe twelve or something, painted on the wall, I tried one on canvas. It was ‘87 probably? No, it must be ‘88 or ‘89. Marcus Harvey had it in his studio. He called me up recently and said, “I’ve found a rolled-up canvas of yours.” I shared a studio with him. That was the only time I ever shared a studio. So I thought the only painting it could be was that one. It was the first spot painting I ever did on canvas. It was quite a big painting. It was all cracked. And it goes right to the edges. And it’s got one black dot on it. And I’ve never painted a black dot ever again. Because it stood out. All the colors were there, but the black stood out.
AHG: I saw some blacks in there. [I indicate the gallery.]
DH: No. It’s very near. But there’s a lot of colors. Dark colors. A very dark blue. Or a very dark red, a very dark green. They are almost black. But they don’t compare. It’s like jet black, that’s the first thing you see. It really jumps out at you.
AHG: You say the colors are chosen at random. But your assistants have got to make a choice. Right? They’re not doing it with their eyes shut?
DH: In the past I did do some paintings where I let my assistants choose the colors and make random arrangements. Anything to not make a decision. Getting other people to make decisions is a good way to not make decisions. As long as you’re overseeing it. I would always be able to go in, and if I saw anything I didn’t like I could change it. Because people are rebels, aren’t they? But what I do now is I choose the colors and I lay them out on the floor in a grid. You just take them from the tins. So if there’s ten by nine spots, I’ll do a grid of ten by nine tins of paint.
AHG: Can the spots have a meaning ever? Like the black spot in Treasure Island? Or the red spot, meaning this painting is sold?
DH: Well, the black spot can mean death. Or it’s the hole in Ringo’s pocket in Yellow Submarine. It means whatever you want it to mean. Or remember Bugs Bunny? Doesn’t Bugs Bunny take out a black dot? And puts it on the ground and someone falls right in it? It’s always about discovering things. I’ve never really planned something out that I know is going to work. Whereas, with the spot paintings, it’s really quite strange. I don’t know why, I never wanted to just do one. Or do six and call it a day. I always wanted it to be an endless series.
And what I find difficult now, looking at this show, it’s 25 years of my life. And I don’t like that at all. Because when I first painted them it was this brand new thing and I felt immortal in a way. The time was right. We were fucking dancing on the tables, changing the rules, nothing could stop us. Now to see us, some of us look really fucking old. Worn.
I went around to see Louise Bourgeois’s house just before she died. I remember looking at the light switches and the wiring. And the crumbling paintwork. And I was suddenly thinking, we are getting older! We don’t want brand-new pristine hygienic surfaces everywhere. Because you want what’ s happening to your body to be happening around you. You feel more comfortable. Maybe. In some way. But then you see old collectors living in sterile houses. And you do! Their bodies are letting the whole thing down. You get out of bed, you can hardly walk. You feel more comfortable, don’t you, if you are aware that it’s not just you who is decaying—your surroundings are decaying as well. So you are part of the whole thing. It’s like the old leather jacket, isn’t it? It’s a nice thing, an old leather jacket.
AHG: Last time we spoke at length was just before you showed your own paintings at the Wallace Collection. Are you still making them?
DH: Yes. I’ve done a series of thirty paintings called Two Weeks One Summer over the last two years.
AHG: Are they like the ones at the Wallace?
DH: More color. Dead birds, parrots. Birds and blossom. I’m going to show them at White Cube next year.
AHG: You told me then that to some extent the spot paintings were about denial.
DH: Yeah. I think my whole career is about the romance of painting in some way. The idea of painting. I went through Conceptual art. The spot paintings are definitely Conceptual art. There’s an optimism to them which is amazing. They never look tired. I think even a spin painting looks tired after a while. The spot paintings, they never stop moving. They never get tired. I just got the idea to do the very, very tiny spots. And I think they are so different to anything I have ever done before.
AHG: Like the ones in there?
DH: Like the very, very little ones in there.
AHG: I read that you are making a painting with a million dots. But I also read that you are making a painting with two million dots.
DH: There’s two paintings. They are millimeter spots. The one million dots is about three meters by two meters, something like that. When I worked out the million-spot painting, I kind of worked out how to do it, how long it would take. And then I thought a million is such a freaky amount. I need to do two million. And that implies endless millions. Whereas one million, you think, that’s it! It’s the end! You think you can’t do more than a million. But if you do two million, it’s like ten million or a billion. So the biggest one is two million. They are going to take years to make.
AHG: Frightening thought really.
DH: Yes! It’s fucking mad. The human eye might not be able to see them. If you go to the microscopic ones you can spend the rest of your life working on something that’s a millimeter across. Fucking nuts! When I’ve done those, I can’t see myself doing any more. I want them to be an endless series, but I want them to be sort of infinite. An endless series is two things. It makes them infinite but it also connects them with my life. I want to imply it rather than do it. So I’m torn all of the time.
AHG: You have said the spot paintings are “happy” work. It’s an interesting word, happy. I remember Ed Moses at one of the Art Basels saying there’s no angst any more!
AHG: Do you think there has been a change in the nature of art in that way?
DH: It’s probably to do with age. I think angst is something you get as you get older. It’s the way human beings are. Like de Kooning. Or like The Beatles. A great example. The way they grew up in public, going from short hair to long hair. And you see them very happy. And then angst comes in, and it gets all dark. But I think there’s real angst, isn’t there? And then there’s art. You don’t get angst in art really. In life, angst gets you down. But in art, it’s uplifting, it’s optimistic. Art makes you look at things you can’t look at because they take you down. You never look at a painting and get depressed. You look at a painting and you see dark things and they make you optimistic. That’s the difference between art and life. It’s not real angst. It’s the representation of angst.
AHG: To what extent do you think of the future? To what extent does anybody think of the future of their work these days? You don’t hear of artists willing to starve because they’ll be in a museum one day.
DH: I’ve always been aware of that. It’s a good way of thinking about it. Art lasts for a long time. You are making art for people that haven’t been born yet. You want to make art about the world today. But you want to make art that will stand up 200 years from now. Art is the greatest vehicle for me to look at the past. And realize that the people in the black-and-white movies were actually human. Because they don’t look human in black-and-white movies. But if you look at paintings, you see that these people had urges and weaknesses and strengths.
AHG: In old photographs everything looks different. But on Facebook people look as if they are going to live forever.
DH: But soon people will be looking at three-dimensional images. You’re looking at a flat photograph and you think, what is this monstrosity?
[A sign for David Hockney's upcoming show at London’s Royal Academy noted that the work was “made by the artist himself.” This had started up yet another media kerfuffle over the fact that Mr. Hirst, like Koons, the late Donald Judd and a myriad others, is reliant on assistants. This was on Mr. Hirst's mind.]
DH: I keep getting this thing about painting your own work. You don’t paint the spots and all that shit. I’m doing this other stuff where I’ve got two guys in Italy carving a sculpture out of granite. So I’ve made a plaster, working in the foundry, of two figures. One of them is based on Michelangelo’s Slaves. These two guys are amazing granite carvers and they are working day in, day out, And it’s like two and a half years to make one. And it’s an edition of three. So that’s ten years, with an AP. If I wanted to do it, I would have to go and study for ten years, five years to learn how to carve granite. Fucking hell! If these guys live to be seventy they are going to be able to make twelve of these. And that’s their whole careers. And that’s your whole life gone. So you have to get people.
AHG: Lucas Cranach’s studio was making Lucas Cranachs a hundred years after he died.
DH: Really? I did think about putting Damien Hirst and Sons over the door. And then they can take over. With the art and everything.
AHG: So the Damien Hirst studio will continue producing spot paintings when you’re gone?
DH: I don’t know. There’s two ways of doing it, aren’t there? Henry Moore and Lynn Chadwick said every edition needs to be finished. When I die, that’s it! And anything in progress gets stopped. So I quite like the idea of finishing everything. There’s something pretty good about saying the moment you die, that’s it. But they are still making Giacomettis. Is that what you want? There’s something quite good about thinking you can make things after you are dead. I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.