Artless in America: In Her Inaugural Column, the Columnist Learns to See Spots

And interact with security guards

Spots. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

In the two years since I became an arts journalist, my interaction with art has been marked by weird flukes, awkward mishaps and, generally, bizarre situations. I conducted an interview with pop-music princess Katy Perry, who had just been painted, nude, on a cotton candy cloud, by Will Cotton; I nervously perched on a $28 million Eileen Gray chair at Christie’s; I almost spooned with Marina Abramović on a giant beanbag in Atlanta.

Throughout, I’ve often had the sneaking suspicion that I’m the wrong woman for the job. After all, I’m a veritable queen of calamity, prone to bumping into priceless objets. And I wondered, as perhaps most of us do, whether I was actually any good at looking at art—I get fidgety staring at anything for more than a few minutes.

My gallery-going style consists of a medium-paced promenade around the room, after which I place non-legally-binding “dibs” on the artwork I like most, figure out where I’d put it in my apartment, and leave. I have watched less than one minute of Andy Warhol’s Empire. (I mean—I know how it ends.) So when it came time to select a topic for the inaugural installation of this column, I quaked in my loafers.

It was time to take a good hard look at things. So off I headed, to re-examine the last art offering I’d breezed through — the 21st Street outpost of Damien Hirst’s global show of “spot paintings,” fabricated by the British blue-chip artist’s army of 100-plus assistants. (He claims to command 160 employees in his six studios, but he’s got shifty eyes.) My plan was to camp out for half an hour and gaze, without interruption, at a single one of Mr. Hirst’s paintings. I was going to spend 30 minutes in a staring contest with 462 spots.

First, some background, for those of you who have been living in an early version of Newt Gingrich’s proposed moon habitation: The 21st Street Gagosian Gallery is but one of three New York Gagosian sites hosting “Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011,” which opened on Jan. 12 at 11 Gagosian locations across the world and in fact has on display only 331 of the 1,500 spot paintings in the catalogue. The works are white canvases, ranging in size from 1 x 1.5 inches to massive, on which grids of variously colored enamel dots—different sizes on different canvases, but consistent within a single canvas—have been applied, with no color repeated within a painting, and the distance between the orbs equaling their diameter.

I have never really wanted to own a Damien Hirst, so my pick-your-favorite game was moot when it came to his spot paintings. As for his other signature artworks: In my apartment, there are already plenty of poorly marked pill bottles and bugs alighting on short-rib leftovers. Moreover, I can’t afford an armed guard to stop baseball bat-wielding dinner guests from smashing a tank filled with formaldehyde.

In fact, I am basically inclined to take offense at this $332 million (according to the British Sunday Times) man, who for his spot paintings borrowed some of the grand concepts of the 1960s’ Minimalism and Conceptualism—most obviously the idea of work reproduced by an array of people from an artist-conceived pattern—and used them for a commercial spectacle that isn’t even that spectacular. (It’s polka dots, remember.)

The spot paintings are like an avant-garde art formula applied to a limited edition Louis Vuitton handbag. (Paging Takashi Murakami.) It’s bad art with good art historical pedigree, with a host of potential predecessors whose movements start with Capital Letters and sound impressive in press releases. The worst part, however—or the best part, depending on your perspective—is that Mr. Hirst is almost certainly pleased by how much this project tees people off.

“I mean, I just move color around on its own. So that’s where the spot paintings came from—to create that structure to do those colors, and do nothing,” the Gagosian press release quotes Mr. Hirst saying. Between the inclusion of the phrase “I mean” and the purported aim to “do nothing,” the gallery seems to be conspiring with Mr. Hirst to present the artist as a petulant bad boy, daring the art world to scold, “Oh, you, up to no good again,” or to defiantly counter, “Actually, there are redeeming qualities to this thoughtless work,” when neither statement applies.

So there I was, in a room with 14 spot paintings from which to choose one for my personal spot challenge. I settled on Phenyltoloxamine (2010-11), which measures 172 x 180 inches and features four-inch spots—which I find the most pleasing, probably because they share, roughly, the dimensions of the top of a large mug. They form a 22 x 21-spot grid; I know this because I spent much of my art-watching adventure counting and recounting them.

The work, I learned after the fact, is titled for an antihistamine—pretty tame stuff for an artist who has proclaimed that his art is about mortality. According to, side effects of this painting include drowsiness (check), dizziness (check), dry mouth/nose/throat (check, check and check), headache (sure), upset stomach (not really) and trouble sleeping (to be determined).

As I took up my station, two security guards gave me the once-over—one threw me the stink-eye right away, the other kept looking at her watch, almost as frequently as I did. “First impressions:” my notebook reads, “gallery v. hot. Wish I could take off jacket. Where could I put jacket? Back pain.” I practiced standing on one foot, then another and, thinking about how bridesmaids sometimes pass out in the apse when they lock their knees for too long, started doing mini-squats. Seeing my mini-squat maneuver, the stink-eye guard began inching toward me.

I tried to look serious and journalistic. Then I thought I’d take a crack at the da Hirsti code: Daniel Barnes recently wrote in his Hirst-Gagosian ARTslant review, “A member of Gagosian staff tells me that the key paintings which correlate specific colours with letters of the alphabet are the start of a game: if you look at each painting carefully, a sequence of colours will reveal a hidden word, and if you get the word first you win a spot painting.”

This is probably baloney, and I don’t trust Mr. Barnes. (How can you trust a man whose website bio states, “He is interested in the consumption, appreciation and understanding of contemporary art, which is underpinned by a theoretical concern to explore the nature of aesthetic experience and interpretation with a view to extrapolate the role of art in contemporary society?”) But I briefly pretended that I was a code-breaking card-carrying Mensa member who makes short work of the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.

No codes were cracked.

When I saw someone checking out the side edges of the canvas—a classic snobby art-viewing move—I followed suit. The sides are (no surprise here) white. At my sudden lunge forward, however, the cagey guard jogged over and parked himself between me and the painting for a few minutes before reluctantly moseying away.

Next I worried about why certain spots looked the same color to me. “Am I partially color blind?” asks a frantic scrawl in my notebook, with 22 minutes left on the clock. I hunted for the darkest dot, the lightest dot. Wished I had Chapstick. Tried not to look at the neighboring spot paintings, which suddenly seemed more appealing than the one I had chosen.

I then realized, abruptly, that I’d been standing in one place for 15 minutes. So I backed away from Phenyltoloxamine, until I reached the opposite wall. (It is a staple of connoisseurship to change your perspective on the work.) The spots seemed imperfect and blurry from this distance. “Imperfect and blurry,” I studiously wrote in my notebook, followed by, “Get glasses prescription updated?”

I eavesdropped on fellow viewers: “There’s a sociopathic thing going on here,” drawled a woman. “No, it’s genius,” replied a man. “But you don’t have to be a misogynist to be a genius,” said the woman. Had I wandered into a Don DeLillo novel?

Making my way right up to the surface of the painting, I noticed wavy gesso brushstrokes on the canvas, little ripples and ridges you can see through the perfectly smooth enamel. Before I could invent a profound meaning for the messy gesso job, I realized that I was pointing my uncapped pen at the painting, and that my pal, Mr. Hyper-Attentive Guard, was literally holding his breath. I lifted my pen over my head and eased away from the art, feeling a surge of sympathy for Tony Shafrazi, when he’s in any museum.

Ten seconds to go, and on the verge of belting out “Auld Lang Syne,” I stopped to ponder what I had learned: Only that Damien Hirst’s spot paintings give up very little. I recently visited the Metropolitan Museum’s new American Wing and stood transfixed before detail-rich paintings of bobble-headed children. But I don’t want to have a blind spot for art that begs to be disliked. I recalled the New Year’s Eve scene in When Harry Met Sally. “The first time we met we hated each other,” says Harry. “The second time we met, you didn’t even remember me,” counters Sally. Could I pick Phenyltoloxamine out of a lineup? Doubtful. But maybe if I suffered through a little more spite, back pain and security-guard belligerence, I might find some polka-dot love. I reset my stopwatch. Another few minutes couldn’t hurt. Artless in America: In Her Inaugural Column, the Columnist Learns to See Spots