Is This the End of a Damien Hirst Era?

It’s time we had a talk about Damien Hirst. I know, I know. Mr. Hirst, who was born in 1965 and came to prominence in the London art scene of the late 1980s as the first among equal of the Young British Artists, has for so long been ascending to the kind of fame perversely reserved for artists of maximum visibility and a minimum of formal skills that the mere mention of his name may prompt a fatigued groan even among the most detached museum-goer. That guy? Again? So what’d he do now? Mr. Hirst has been such a big player in art during the last decade and a half—everything from its calculated affronts and controversies to its biennial boom to the explosion in cost-and-scale: in short, the very market mechanism itself. If you are one of those people who don’t particularly like contemporary art or disagreed with the Met’s decision to display Mr. Hirst’s dead shark for three years, you probably think Mr. Hirst has a lot to answer for. This thought was occasioned by Hirst’s current show at the uptown Gagosian Gallery, which runs until March 6. “End of an Era,” its called. And the title feels just about right.

Visually, the show is pitch-perfect. Occupying the main showroom on the gallery’s sixth floor and two side rooms, “End of an Era” looks like the proverbial million—better make that $50 million. Twelve photo-realist paintings of the famed diamonds line the walls, hung in obtrusively flashy gold frames. Does it matter that the paintings are (a) terrible (they look like they were ripped from the pages of a jewelry store catalog) and (b) probably made by the artist’s team of studio assistants? From the view of the market, no. (People really shell out for this stuff.) Hanging on the far wall is Judgment Day (2009): an enormous glass and gold-plate-fronted cabinet containing 30,000 diamonds, twinkling, cracking and otherwise light-refracting in their trays. Don’t get too excited, though. The diamonds are actually “cubic zirconium.”

At the center of the room, mounted on a marble plinth, is End of an Era (2009)—a decapitated cow head submerged in a tank of formaldehyde. The cow wears a pair of golden horns and a solid-gold headset. For all its gruesomeness, the cow is actually a little goofy-looking, its tongue sticking out. You can almost hear Mr. Hirst chortle. End of an Era comes by way of detachment from the bovine body of a 2008 artwork, The Golden Calf. Forget the Old Testament. Such mocking morbidity is Mr. Hirst’s stock in trade. The artist offers up incredibly expensive objects for art collectors at the same time as he puts a moralizing spin on them, invoking art historical themes of vanity, luxury and death. Mr. Hirst has an attitude. What else is the show’s title but a clever way to get out in front of the criticism that his work is heavy on sensation and short on—what’s the word for it—soul?

Maybe that’s why, in New York, at least, Mr. Hirst has never felt like a leading artist. His brand of cold aesthetic perfection—the sliced-up sheep, the pharmaceutical styling, the butterflies pinned to the canvas—was never the kind of thing other younger artists ever seemed to argue about or particularly aspire to. The market and publicity pages in the glossies are where the ardor for Mr. Hirst has been felt. His career has been one succès de scandale after another, from the famous shark with the head-spinning title of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) to the platinum skull encrusted in diamonds. So far, Mr. Hirst’s instincts have been profitable if not faultless. His forget-the-gallery-I’ll-go-it-alone sale at Sotheby’s in November 2008 raised $200.7 million. That this occurred the same week the stock market tanked makes it a record that will not be beat anytime soon. A detour to the Gagosian Gallery’s fifth floor features several of the artist’s greatest hits: the spin, dot and butterfly paintings. Mr. Hirst has previously said he is going to discontinue several of these series, which were produced in an unnumbered run. Despite that fact—or maybe because of it—they were especially prized among the newly rich during the money mad aughts.

But with “End of an Era,” Hirst seems to have outsmarted himself decisively. This show is historic, a period room that’s instantly of a time and place. Only the time and place is 2007. If art historians of the distant future wanted to re-create the past decade’s craziness, they could do it with this one show, should the work of Richard Prince otherwise perish from the planet. In a way, this is instructive. We are in the first months of a new decade and already are feeling the inevitable fading of last year’s fashions into the historical long view. The current cultural moment, in art and otherwise, is juiced, jumpy and uncertain: a live wire for all those involved. It’s a moment for experimentation, low-cost living, the young. Established reputations are due for swift, sudden revisions. Mr. Hirst is on deck. Apropos of its title, “End of an Era” really does feel like the end of an era, a period style that, now passed, can hardly be believed.

  Is This the End of a Damien Hirst Era?