Bold and precise, Ipratropium Bromide is a splendid example of Damien Hirst’s signature spot paintings. An immaculate grid-like formation of uniquely-coloured dots, ranging from bright tones to pastel hues, covers a pristine white canvas. The work forms part of the monumental series of Pharmaceutical Paintings that span over two decades of Hirst’s richly varied oeuvre. With each work taking its title from an individual chemical compound, the series constitutes an integral strand of Hirst’s groundbreaking practice: a practice that, since the late 1980s, has deftly interrogated the boundaries between art and science in an attempt to explore the complex nature of the human condition. In contrast to some of the darker strains of his output, Hirst’s spot paintings are among his most euphoric works. Juxtaposing an almost molecular pictorial structure with a seemingly random selection of colours, Ipratropium Bromide presents an image of limitless chromatic possibility contained within a framework of formal perfection. ‘I once said that the spot paintings could be what art looks like viewed through an imaginary microscope’, writes Hirst. ‘I love the fact that in the paintings the angst is removed ... the colours project so much joy it’s hard to feel it, but it’s there’ (D. Hirst, quoted in D. Hirst (ed.), I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London 1997, p. 246).
Initiated whilst still a student at the Goldsmiths College of Art in London, Hirst’s spot paintings played an iconic role within the artist’s diverse vocabulary. Despite his notorious sculptural and installation work, Hirst had always aspired to be a painter, and it was the spot paintings that allowed him to systematically engage with the medium in new ways. It was in these works, too, that Hirst first found a way of expressing the dialogue between order and chaos that was to underpin so much of his subsequent work. ‘I was always a colourist...’, claims the artist, ‘I just move colour around on its own. So that’s what the spot paintings came from - to create that structure to do those colours... 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... The spot paintings are... just like a very exciting discovery, where you get this scientific formula that you add to this sort of mess’ (D. Hirst, quoted in D. Hirst and G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, pp. 119-120, 126).
Executed primarily between 1988 and 2011, the Pharmaceutical Paintings are the most renowned and significant among Hirst’s various subsections of spot painting. As seen in Ipratropium Bromide, they are characterised by equal-sized dots, each equidistant from its neighbour, positioned on a white background without any repetition of colour. ‘I started them as an endless series...’ explains Hirst, ‘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’ (D. Hirst, quoted in D. Hirst (ed.), I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London, 1997, p. 246). The idea of a never-ending, infinite number of structural and chromatic combinations mirrors the unlimited plane of discovery embodied by scientific research. The titles of the works were taken from a book that Hirst chanced upon in the early 1990s - the chemical company Sigma-Aldrich’s catalogue Biochemicals Organic Compounds for Research and Diagnostic Reagents. “It was just an afterthought to name them after drugs, based on this book, but I saw it and thought: I have just got to do all of them’ (D. Hirst, quoted in The Agony and the Ecstasy: Selected Works from 1989-2004, exh. cat., Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples 2004, p. 113).
The relationship between art and medicine has come to represent one of Hirst’s most pertinent lines of enquiry. Indeed, a number of other significant series, including the Medicine Cabinets and Pill Cabinets, have engaged with this theme, adopting the same tendency towards structural order and patterning as the spot paintings. “Art is like medicine,’ Hirst once said. ‘It can heal. Yet I’ve always been amazed at how many people believe in medicine but don’t believe in art’ (D. Hirst, quoted in D. Hirst (ed.), I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London 1997, p. 246). In the Pharmaceutical Paintings Hirst’s unlimited permutations of colour and pattern, each one unique, restore our faith in the art’s incessant power to generate new forms; they envision a future of never-ending discovery and continued survival.
‘I remember in my first year [at Goldsmiths] I saw [tutor] Basil Beattie. I was doing these collages and he said I shouldn’t really be here if that’s what I was doing. […] I ended up breaking them all up and sweeping them into a pile and having a few tutorials talking about the pile. I think my ‘spot’ paintings came out of that. I just sort of rid myself of it all and started again’
(D. Hirst, quoted in ‘Reflections of a Young British Artist, in Goldlink, no. 40, Winter 2013, p. 10).