‘I really like making them. And I really like the machine, and I really like the movement. Every time they’re finished, I’m desperate to do another one.’ (D. Hirst quoted in D. Hirst and G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London, 2001), p. 221).
Damien Hirst’s Beautiful, Exotic, Divinely, Deep, Devil Painting is an iconic example of the artist’s brightly subversive Spin Painting series. Completed in 1995 (the year Hirst won the prestigious Turner Prize), Beautiful… contains all of the components of the most successful works in Hirst’s oeuvre: the painting is simplistic in its execution, cool in its visual appearance, but complex in its conceptual depth. Hirst and the artist Angus Fairhurst originally conceived of Spin Paintings in 1993 as part of a tongue-in-cheek public performance piece called A Féte Worse than Death. The artists, dressed as circus clowns, encouraged audience members to create their own masterpieces using a crude mechanical device that spun rapidly as participants flung paint onto a paper surface. From these beginnings, Hirst recognized the seeds of the Spin Painting series, executed in his studio using a rotating machine, house paint, and canvas. From 1995 onward, Hirst’s Beautiful… paintings juxtaposed cheerful splashes of vibrant color with allusions as wide-ranging as the spinning records of Britain’s punk rock scene and the works of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Marcel Duchamp.
A departure from the rigidity of the highly organized Spot Paintings, Hirst’s Beautiful… series instead portrays a visual explosion of color across the canvas. The viewer is optically drawn into the creative act, as the circular motion of the spinning machine’s moment is explicitly revealed on the image’s surface. The painting’s drips and splashes can been seen as tongue-in-cheek references to the works of Jackson Pollock, but Hirst’s works cry out to the viewer in vibrant Technicolor rather than Pollock’s muted greys and whites. The very act of spin art also conjures up images of the liberation and freedom of childhood. Here, the playful rhetoric of the Spin Paintings has echoes in the accepting embrace of Jeff Koons’ populist Made in Heaven and Celebration series.
But deeper than the visual attraction of the work are the conceptual questions that Hirst raises. Specifically, in an act as simple as pouring paint onto a spinning wheel, Hirst calls into question the entire concept of an artist’s control over a work’s composition. The machine and physics, rather than the artist, physically creates the artwork. Here, Hirst investigates Andy Warhol’s silk-screen replication practices and explores the extent to which painting can be outsourced to a mechanical device. Like Warhol’s Factory, Hirst’s outsourcing of the execution of much of his art to a bevy of assistants is an embrace of the mass-production model of twentieth century capitalism. In describing his factory-like approach to art, Hirst stated, “I like a factory to produce work, which separates the work from the ideas, but I wouldn’t like a factory to produce the ideas” (D. Hirst, quoted in ‘Relationships’, in Damien Hirst, exh. cat. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, 2004, p. 233).
Hirst’s Beautiful… paintings also embody the Young British Artists’ famous anti-establishment stance, bringing the spirit of Britain’s punk rock generation into visual art. This is evident not just in Hirst’s allusion to the cyclical spinning of the record player, but also to the audacity of the de-skilling inherent in the work’s execution. Eduardo Cicelyn, the curator of a major Hirst retrospective in 2004, states, “With Hirst … the instincts and impulses of contemporary English society entered the world of art, with the same arrogance with which punk language and ritualism invented a generational lifestyle in the late 1960s. … Just as the punks were responding to problems of massive unemployment, the rediscovery of poverty, and the crisis of moral values of their era … the YBAs are reacting to the social and cultural desolation created by Thatcherism, and they are symbolically assailing the sclerotic art system, in crisis for lack of ideas” (E. Cicelyn, ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’, ibid., p. 21).
In their radical simplicity and confrontational positioning, the Beauitful… paintings call to mind the audacity of Marcel Duchamp’s early Readymades. Indeed, the Spin Paintings draw parallels to the turning of Duchamp’s proto-Dada, kinetic sculpture Bicycle Wheel from 1913, now housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hirst is no less an innovator. His art, in contrast, calls out the established aesthetics of the art industry, while gleefully providing works of visual beauty. Cicelyn continues, “Here, finally, is a legitimate heir to Marcel Duchamp, to Surrealism, and to all those artists who, over the course of this century, used esthetics for the radical practice of subverting the bourgeois imagination” (E. Cicelyn, ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’, ibid.).