Per Science, Ltd., there are five known extant Radioactive Compound paintings at this time.
"I love color. I feel it inside me. It gives me a buzz" - Damien Hirst
Hirst has said that for as long as he could remember he had always wanted to be a painter, but that he felt there was nothing new to discover in the painterly process. In striving to find his own voice in this debate he began to explore the fundamental nature of creativity in modern world and the result was the matrix like grids of his Pharmaceutical Paintings. As he later recalled, this series was about, "the urge or the need to be a painter above and beyond the object of the painting....I believe that after Pollock created a distance between the brush and the paint, there was nowhere else to go with painting....The urge to be a painter is still there" (D. Hirst, quoted in R. Violette, I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, New York, 1997, p. 246). Hirst solved the problem by taking painting in a new direction, devising grids of colored dots painted on a pristine white canvas. He made each dot of uniform size, equidistant from its neighbor. He repeated no color within the same canvas. This solution dismissed the need for composition, and the shapes' geometrical nature meant that the resulting canvas was neither abstract nor representational.
Whilst on the surface it may seem as though these almost perfect spheres of pigment have been produced by mechanical means rather than human, when viewed under ultra-violet light Strontium 500 has a beguiling secret that begins to reveal the painting's true intent. It is only when viewed under these conditions that the surface of the work comes alive to reveal the painterly origins of its execution. For it is only here that broad painterly brushstrokes become visible as some of the discs fluoresce adding a fizz of excitement to this already fascinating example of painterly artistic production. Contrasting with this is the careful way in which Hirst constructs his geometric grid. This formal structure, combined with the scientific nature of the painting's title, has the effect of almost subliminally suggesting that a specific system or structure is at play here, but this is something which the artist denies in favor of something much more organic, "In the spot paintings the grid-like structure creates the beginning of a system. On each painting no two colors are the same. This ends the system; it's a simple system. No matter how I feel as an artist or a painter, the paintings end up looking happy. I can still make all the emotional decisions about color that I need to as an artist, but in the end they are lost. The end of painting. And I'm still painting...I believe painting and all art should utlimately be uplifting for a viewer. I love color. I feel it inside me. It gives me a buzz" (Ibid., p. 246).
Strontium 500, with its obvious pharmaceutical references, reinforces Hirst's belief that art should be uplifting. "Art is like medicine", he once said, "It can heal. Yet I've always been amazed at how many people believe in medicine but don't believe in art, without questioning either" (Ibid.). Strontium, an element in the periodic table used in the treatment of cancer, is just one of the chemicals that Hirst references in this series. The colorful dots resemble a series of multi-colored pills and act as a bridge between the Medicine Cabinets he made alongside these works and the pill cabinets which he began in the late 1990s where the perfect forms of pills are lined up to geometric and chromatic perfection. Even in the Medicine Cabinets, Hirst explained that the composition was based more on his ideas of color than on any medical knowledge or rationale. Nonetheless, those neatly stacked products gave a sense of reason and purpose that was taken up in the pill-like progression of colored circles in Stontium 500.
Hirst's Pharmaceutical Paintings heralded his arrival on the international art scene as it was one of these paintings that he decided to exhibit at the influential Freeze exhibition in 1988. Organized by Hirst while he was still a student at Goldsmith's College of Art in London, this show helped launch the careers of many of the artists who became known as the YBA generation. It is perhaps fitting then that Hirst should have chosen a painting to represent him in an exhibition that caused such shockwaves throughout the art world. Strontium 500 is as much about the nature of painting as it is about more contemporary cultural issues. As such it is an important contribution to a debate that has engaged artists for centuries and in the process it has turned Damien Hirst into an unlikely champion of the continued relevance of painting today.