Spanning four square metres, Alphidicolin Diacetate is an early large-scale example of Damien Hirst’s celebrated spot paintings. Titled after a chemical compound, it belongs to the subgroup of so-called ‘Pharmaceutical Paintings’ that represents one of his most iconic bodies of work. Within the strict parameters of his gridded format, Hirst creates a field of extraordinary chromatic effects, juxtaposing individually-coloured dots upon a clinical white background. Created in 1994, the work stems from a pivotal moment in his early career. The previous year, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, where his seminal work Mother and Child Divided was shown. In 1995, he was awarded the Turner Prize. The ‘Pharmaceutical Paintings’ played a pivotal role in this success, articulating the relationship between science and art that underpins his practice. They were simultaneously logical and chaotic, capturing the fundamentally unpredictable nature of human existence. ‘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 ... Art is like medicine, it can heal. Yet I’ve always been amazed at how many people believe in medicine but don’t believe in art’ (D. Hirst, I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London 2006, p. 246).
Created primarily between 1988 and 2011, the ‘Pharmaceutical Paintings’ cycle is the largest and most significant of Hirst’s thirteen subgroups of spot paintings. Their titles were taken from a book entitled Biochemicals for Research and Diagnostic Reagents, by the chemical company Sigma-Aldrich, which the artist chanced upon during the early 1990s. Devoid of all trace of his hand, the works were deliberately designed to appear ‘like a person trying to paint like a machine’, charged with a sense of predetermined order (D. Hirst, quoted in D. Hirst and G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 90). On the other hand, the artist rejoiced in the seemingly infinite optical effects that arose from the random distribution of tonalities, delighting in the perpetual sense of vibration between hues. ‘With the spot paintings, I probably discovered the most fundamentally important thing in any kind of art’, he explained. ‘Which is the harmony of where colour can exist on its own, interacting with other colours in a perfect format’ (D. Hirst, ibid., p. 120). Ultimately, however, the chromatic thrill of these works is underpinned by a lingering existential anxiety. With their seemingly molecular structure, the paintings seem to hint at the co-existence of beauty and horror within the realm of scientific discovery: the knowledge that, however close we come to understanding the workings of the world, we are all fundamentally beholden to unknowable machinations of fate.