Damien Hirst does not consider himself a serious gambler. He likes to play roulette “because it’s easy.” And he tells a story about learning the “fail-safe rules for blackjack” from his London gallerist Jay Jopling, only to lose all of his money at the table within two hours.
But when it comes to the art world, Hirst is known for a showy sort of risk-taking, even if at 46 his prime rock-star-style binge partying days are largely behind him. His most famous artworks hinge on a sort of brinkmanship — a shark in formaldehyde anyone?
And he plays the art market as successfully as anyone, whether by creating a highly photogenic diamond-encrusted skull and pricing it at nearly $100 million or by bypassing his galleries to sell hundreds of artworks at Sotheby’s London for a staggering $200 million in September 2008, just as the financial markets plunged to record lows.
Now, for his latest art-market venture, the British artist has teamed with his longtime U.S. dealer Larry Gagosian to supply all 11 Gagosian galleries worldwide with shows of his well-known “Spot” paintings, which feature grids of dots painted in different colors. All exhibitions, including Beverly Hills, New York, London and Hong Kong, will take place simultaneously Jan. 12 to Feb. 18. (Hirst plans to attend the New York opening.)
He expects to show about 300 paintings made from 1986 to today. More than half will be loans from private collectors and museums; the rest is for sale at undisclosed prices. Although prices have not been disclosed, conservative estimates based on past sales of spot paintings could make the material worth at least $100 million — unless the volume scares off buyers.
Instead of talking about pricing for the show, Hirst spoke about the mega-exhibition as an argument for the complexity of the spot paintings, which have been dismissed by some art critics like Robert Hughes as “silly” abstractions.
The paintings on their own “look sort of happy — like Skittles or kids’ sweets,” Hirst said during an interview in L.A.., where he stopped en route to Las Vegas with musician friend Antony Genn. “But when you see them together you get kind of lost in them. There’s an underlying anxiousness.”
Still, exhibiting 300 spot paintings at one time is exactly the kind of egomaniacal gesture that people love to hate. It fits a pattern that once prompted art critic Jerry Saltz to call Hirst “a symptom of the hype, the hubris and the money that have swamped the art scene lately.”
Others have suggested that the only real content, the only meaningful theme, of his artwork over the years has been money or ambition itself.
Hirst shrugged. “I’m not afraid to take risks,” he said. “I try things that on the surface shouldn’t work, and people resent that. I could have easily done the  auction at Sotheby’s with 12 works, but I did it with three catalogs and 200 works, and it was over-the-top and in-your-face and then it pays off and people hate that, in England especially.”
Hirst dismissed as “gibberish” allegations that his dealers helped to prop up his pricesby purchasing some of these works and pitching in to buy his diamond-studded skull. But the perception that he is too big to fail surely fuels any resentment.
Then there’s the fact, often irksome for those not sold on conceptual art, that he makes little of this work himself. He began his spot paintings in the mid ‘80s, inspired, he said, by the “sight of colored balls on a snooker [pool] table.”
He did some of his earliest spot paintings in 1988 directly on the walls of the groundbreaking “Freeze” exhibition, which he helped to organize while still a student at Goldsmiths, before hitting on the current formula. The idea is simple: rows of different colored spots, no color repeated on a single canvas, in which the diameter of the spot would equal the gap between them. He took his titles for the series from the seemingly endless supply of pharmaceutical names found in the Physicians’ Desk Reference.
But after completing five paintings himself, he turned the job over to others. “As soon as I sold one, I got assistants to do them,” he said, suggesting it fit not just his lifestyle but also the notion of the work looking like it’s made by assembly line.
The series is “a battle between the machine made and man-made,” he said. “From a distance they look machine made, and then on closer inspection you can see traces of the human hand, pencil lines and [compass] holes.”
The only problem, he said, was that his assistants kept wanting to make the paintings look more and more professional. So one shift over the years, he said, is that the spots have gotten slicker-looking, so it’s harder to tell how they’re made.
Another change is in size. After years of doing spots of one, two, three or four inches in diameter, he recently starting going very large and very small. The largest has five-foot-wide spots; the smallest measure one millimeter.
One new work that he says will be ready in time for his Gagosian shows: a canvas of about 12 by 16 inches, featuring 18,000 spots. Not yet ready: a painting he is planning with one million dots, and another with two million that he projects will take four assistants four and a half years to finish.
At present, he says he has already made about 1,400 spot paintings, to be published in a full catalogue raisonné at the time of his gallery shows.
It’s enough to make most artists’ concerns about flooding the market, not to mention the classic model of supply and demand, seem rather quaint. Doesn’t he ever worry that the market just can’t absorb another round of spot paintings?
A fast talker, Hirst offered several answers within a couple minutes.
“Who knows what a market is?” he said. “You learn by doing, really. If I put a painting outside a bar at closing time, and it’s still there in the morning, it’s a crap painting. With spot paintings, wherever you leave them, people are going to take them out of the dumpsters. It’s an intrinsic thing that has nothing to do with how many you make.”
He went on to tell a somewhat cryptic story about Larry Gagosian, without commentary. “I remember Larry once phoned me up, and he said he was worried about my production. He said: You are making too many paintings. And then, at the end of the conversation, he said: We need more paintings.”
Hirst then recalled an early trip to L.A. “I remember flying into L.A. at a time when my paintings were 20,000 to 50,000 pounds and looking at the swimming pools here and thinking everyone who has a pool can afford one of these. The market is so much bigger than anyone realizes.”
He also made an argument in favor of ubiquity. “You also have to ask yourself as an artist, ‘What would be more appealing … to have made the Mona Lisa painting itself or have made the merchandising possibilities — putting a postcard on everyone’s walls all over the world? Both are brilliant, but in a way I would probably prefer the postcards — just to get my art out there.”
Then, winding down, Hirst took a more analytical approach: “I’ve looked at the amount of artworks I’ve made in my life: 4,800, not including prints. I know Warhol did 10,000 not including prints, and Picasso did 40,000. So I have a way to go.”