‘I Used to Jump on Tables’: Anthony Haden-Guest Talks With Damien Hirst About Sobriety, His New Work and, Yes, Spot Paintings

'When I first painted them it was this brand new thing and I felt immortal in a way. The time was right. We were... changing the rules, nothing could stop us. Now to see us, some of us look really fucking old. Worn.'

Mr. Hirst at Gagosian on West 21st Street.

Anthony Haden-Guest first met Damien Hirst in New York in the early 1990s. Today, exhibitions of Mr. Hirst’s “Spot Paintings” open at all 11 Gagosian Galleries worldwide.

This interview with Damien Hirst took place yesterday, in a conference room in the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street in Manhattan. Mr. Hirst was wearing a scarlet wool hat, a Joe Strummer T-shirt, two fistfuls of skull rings. We sat at a glass and metal table.

DAMIEN HIRST: So how are you, Anthony?

ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST: I had a hernia operation on Friday

DH: Where?

[I indicate the right groin]

DH: The thing is, I’ve always told you you’ve got to make love, not shag. It’s shagging gives you hernias.

AHG: I think I got it dancing, as a matter of fact.

DH: Yeah! That’ll do it too.

AHG: You used to dance.

DH: Yeah!  But I’ve lost the moves. Five years!

AHG: Five years what?

DH: Since I had a drink.

AHG: Yeah?

DH: Yeah! I used to jump on tables and stuff. You wake up in the morning and you’ve got bruises.  Your back hurts. I broke my heel jumping off a bar. I used to be sort of proud of all the injuries. I came away from a skiing trip in a wheelchair. But you get older.

AHG: So to the spot paintings. You actually got the idea for the show in Gagosian on Madison.

DH: Yeah! Because I saw all the galleries all over the world and what art was showing there.

AHG: Was that in the elevator or outside?

DH: Both. Just outside the elevator and by the girls at the desk. That big wall. There were nine galleries and nine different artists. And I was like, what if that was all my name?  I was looking to do a museum show of spots. I don’t think there’s many artists that could do all the galleries. And only my spot paintings really would work and fill all the spaces. It was kind of a unique thing.

AHG: You couldn’t do it with the spin paintings?

DH: I think it would be repetitive, you know? After two galleries, you’d kind of lose interest. The spots are always new. There’s not so much noticeable changes over the years in the spin paintings.

AHG: There’s spots here I’ve never seen before. [I indicate the gallery space through the door.] I’ve never seen the tiny ones. I’ve never seen the huge ones. I saw a white spot in Peter Marino’s office. I said, “I bet you commissioned that?” He said yes.

DH: Yeah. There are a few. Not many. I tried a few of the white spots. Single-color spots. And I did some black and white.

AHG: One of the first art interviews I did was with Bridget Riley. And I got her wrong. I related her work to Victorian puzzles with the dancing dots. She told me, no, it was all about Seurat.

DH: Yeah.

AHG: When we first talked about the spot paintings you mentioned Larry Poons, Richter, Polke. You’ve talked about your dad painting blue dots on your front door. Was there a light-bulb moment?

DH: I’d done collages like Kurt Schwitters. Then I had taken away the backboard and arranged the objects on the wall. And I thought that was a massive breakthrough. That must have been in the early ‘80s. But then I remember thinking Tony Cragg was doing this ten years ago.  I was thinking I was moving forwards but actually I’d gone back. I was nowhere near up to date. Then I did the cardboard box piece in the Tate. Just pasting cardboard boxes on the wall. And then I thought, well, this is really retro again. It’s like Schwitters. It’s nostalgia. It’s a little bit like Julian Opie. I was always walking around, looking for things, and picking them up and putting them in paintings. Or painting on top of them. Or sticking them on backboards. It was always to do with things found in the real world. Arranging found objects.

And then the spot painting! I just got rid of everything! That was a shock. I didn’t want to use canvas. I didn’t want them to be associated with making a painting really. So I just did them on the wall. That was my original intention. I was never going to do any of them on canvas, they were always going to be on the wall only, and that was it. It would be as if a machine had come along. You can imagine what it would have looked like if a machine had just rolled along the wall and printed it and gone away. So it was almost doing away with the artist as well.

And then, after doing, I don’t know, maybe twelve or something, painted on the wall, I tried one on canvas. It was ‘87 probably? No, it must be ‘88 or ‘89. Marcus Harvey had it in his studio. He called me up recently and said, “I’ve found a rolled-up canvas of yours.” I shared a studio with him. That was the only time I ever shared a studio. So I thought the only painting it could be was that one. It was the first spot painting I ever did on canvas. It was quite a big painting. It was all cracked. And it goes right to the edges. And it’s got one black dot on it. And I’ve never painted a black dot ever again. Because it stood out. All the colors were there, but the black stood out.

AHG: I saw some blacks in there. [I indicate the gallery.]

DH: No. It’s very near. But there’s a lot of colors. Dark colors. A very dark blue. Or a very dark red, a very dark green. They are almost black. But they don’t compare. It’s like jet black, that’s the first thing you see. It really jumps out at you.

AHG: You say the colors are chosen at random. But your assistants have got to make a choice. Right? They’re not doing it with their eyes shut?

DH: In the past I did do some paintings where I let my assistants choose the colors and make random arrangements. Anything to not make a decision. Getting other people to make decisions is a good way to not make decisions. As long as you’re overseeing it. I would always be able to go in, and if I saw anything I didn’t like I could change it. Because people are rebels, aren’t they? But what I do now is I choose the colors and I lay them out on the floor in a grid. You just take them from the tins. So if there’s ten by nine spots, I’ll do a grid of ten by nine tins of paint.

AHG: Can the spots have a meaning ever? Like the black spot in Treasure Island? Or the red spot, meaning this painting is sold?

DH: Well, the black spot can mean death. Or it’s the hole in Ringo’s pocket in Yellow Submarine. It means whatever you want it to mean. Or remember Bugs Bunny? Doesn’t Bugs Bunny take out a black dot? And puts it on the ground and someone falls right in it? It’s always about discovering things. I’ve never really planned something out that I know is going to work. Whereas, with the spot paintings, it’s really quite strange. I don’t know why, I never wanted to just do one. Or do six and call it a day. I always wanted it to be an endless series.

And what I find difficult now, looking at this show, it’s 25 years of my life. And I don’t like that at all. Because when I first painted them it was this brand new thing and I felt immortal in a way. The time was right. We were fucking dancing on the tables, changing the rules, nothing could stop us. Now to see us, some of us look really fucking old. Worn.

I went around to see Louise Bourgeois’s house just before she died. I remember looking at the light switches and the wiring. And the crumbling paintwork. And I was suddenly thinking, we are getting older! We don’t want brand-new pristine hygienic surfaces everywhere. Because you want what’ s happening to your body to be happening around you. You feel more comfortable. Maybe. In some way. But then you see old collectors living in sterile houses. And you do! Their bodies are letting the whole thing down. You get out of bed, you can hardly walk. You feel more comfortable, don’t you, if you are aware that it’s not just you who is decaying—your surroundings are decaying as well. So you are part of the whole thing. It’s like the old leather jacket, isn’t it? It’s a nice thing, an old leather jacket.

AHG: Last time we spoke at length was just before you showed your own paintings at the Wallace Collection. Are you still making them?

DH: Yes. I’ve done a series of thirty paintings called Two Weeks One Summer over the last two years.

AHG: Are they like the ones at the Wallace?

DH: More color. Dead birds, parrots. Birds and blossom. I’m going to show them at White Cube next year.

AHG: You told me then that to some extent the spot paintings were about denial.

DH: Yeah. I think my whole career is about the romance of painting in some way. The idea of painting. I went through Conceptual art. The spot paintings are definitely Conceptual art. There’s an optimism to them which is amazing. They never look tired. I think even a spin painting looks tired after a while. The spot paintings, they never stop moving. They never get tired. I just got the idea to do the very, very tiny spots. And I think they are so different to anything I have ever done before.

AHG: Like the ones in there?

DH: Like the very, very little ones in there.

AHG: I read that you are making a painting with a million dots. But I also read that you are making a painting with two million dots.

DH: There’s two paintings. They are millimeter spots. The one million dots is about three meters by two meters, something like that. When I worked out the million-spot painting, I kind of worked out how to do it, how long it would take. And then I thought a million is such a freaky amount. I need to do two million. And that implies endless millions. Whereas one million, you think, that’s it!  It’s the end! You think you can’t do more than a million. But if you do two million, it’s like ten million or a billion. So the biggest one is two million. They are going to take years to make.

‘I Used to Jump on Tables’: Anthony Haden-Guest Talks With Damien Hirst About Sobriety, His New Work and, Yes, Spot Paintings