Damien Hirst: Gagosian Gallery

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Entering Damien Hirst's first major major New York show, one notices at some point that Gagosian's downtown gallery, designed by Richard Gluckman and rotely touted as "one of the most beautiful spaces in SoHo," looks awful. Gluckman's design, expensive and echt-'80s though it may be, never announces itself but rather recedes, so that "important" artwork may without rancor or dissension command the podium. Damien Hirst fucks this up. Rather than a chapel, Hirst transforms this elegant space into a carnival ground; we are treated to an arcade and freak shows. The pieces seem to jostle each other for space, competing fiercely for our attention. I missed the star-rife opening, but Anthony Haden-Guest reported on it in the "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker: "On opening night, there were black velvet cords attached to brass stanchions outside the gallery. Among the guests were forty-plus Britons, who had showed up to support Hirst; most of them had flown over specially, including the bassist from the band Pink Floyd and a member of the roasting hot band Blur." Plainly, this was not merely an art opening; no, an event, evocative of a dead era of capitalist and media expansion within the art world, an event whose emblem might be the more than slightly ridiculous club-world black-velvet rope. Even in the days following the overheated opening, a sense of crowd and bustle and money after its proper time hovered in the air. (Haden-Guest: "By the end of the first day, the show had sold out cow, sow, ashtray, and all.")

Epater la bourgeoisie is no longer a winning criterion for advanced art. If anything, it is this very attitude of courting shock that seems retardataire. But there is a version of epater that retains a nobler air. I am thinking of Diaghilev's command, "Etonne-moi." Astonish me. It is this quality of astonishment, the sense of seeing something one has never seen before, that Hirst's art has transmitted, for some. This was the voltage of the 1991 Saatchi shark - cold, immobile, dead, yet still menacing. How did be do it? And this is what cannier viewers expected from the current show.

Regrettably, very little in the Gagosian show lived up to the tendered promise of astonishment. Rather than the "major major show," Hirst gave us a sort of mini-mini-retrospective: a lot of samples of past work, old work, most of which doesn't hold up under renewed scrutiny. The spin paintings are new, but only for Hirst. Walter Robinson did the same thing at Metro Pictures a decade ago. The only difference: Hirst has equipped some of his spin paintings with actual motors; set in motion, they accrue an additional (but spurious) layer of art-historical referentiality, Duchamp's rotoreliefs. …