Death becomes him

In every generation, one or two artists attain a celebrity so intense that it blinds us to serious assessment of their work. During the 1990s, Damien Hirst became the most famous artist in British history, yet also a mysterious one, whose iconic pieces – the shark, the rotting cow’s head – appeared to come from nowhere, impinging on the collective consciousness in a way that had nothing to do with museum endorsements or gallery career-building. Now the enfant terrible is tamed at last with a retrospective at Tate Modern: a beautifully installed, clear-sighted show, intellectually streamlined to concentrate on key themes. The effect is to desensationalise Hirst, placing him soberly in art historical rather than art market context, and inviting us to see his achievements straight for the first time.

A hallmark of a great art work is that, however familiar we are with it and with the idea of it, it shakes us anew when we encounter it again in the flesh. Two decades after they were made, the initial pieces in Hirst’s formaldehyde zoo continue to mesmerise for precisely that immediacy and fleshiness, for their bravura, pathos, ambition.

The gaping fish in mock formation, dead as on a fishmonger’s slab, pointlessly follow one another for eternity, in the first paired vitrine installation “Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding”. The shark – a replacement of the 1991 catch, with a more open, greedier jaw, though the wrinkled skin is already looking the worse for wear – still forces you to consider “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”. The bisected cow and calf in “Mother and Child Divided” are as gruesome, the idiotically buoyant sheep in “Away From the Flock” as affectingly lonely, as they ever were. This is art so original and direct that it looks invincible, beyond challenge.

“I think you started with the final act, my dear,” Lucian Freud told Hirst when he saw “A Thousand Years” (1990), the installation where flies breed and buzz around a decomposing cow’s head in a glass cage, waiting to be killed by an insect-o-cutor. The blood forms a pool around the carcass, recalling the paint seeping away from the body in Francis Bacon’s compositions – an elderly Bacon also admired “A Thousand Years” (“it really works”).

In his insistence on flesh as meat, Hirst’s overwhelming, acknowledged influence is Bacon. His genius was to marry Bacon’s tragic sensibility with late 20th-century abstracting, post-minimalist sculpture to develop, early in his career, a fresh language for art’s inescapable themes – growth and decay, the inevitability of death.

‘For the Love of God’ (2007)

Tate’s opening room juxtaposes Hirst’s painted stacks and cubes from the 1980s – “Boxes”, “Kitchen Cupboard” – derived from Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, with a seminal, laughing self-portrait photograph “With Dead Head”. A few years later, death is in those boxes and fear in those grids: not only the dead animals, but the candy-coloured pills lined up behind glass and the pharmaceutical cabinets whose delusional titles – “Submission”, “No Feelings”, “Lullaby, the Seasons” – reflect our dependence on medicine as the fantasy, all-powerful barrier between us and death. Yet ultimately it fails us: the cigarette butts arranged almost geometrically in the vitrine “Dead Ends Died Out, Examined”, the giant ashtray which gives the main gallery here a reek of sickness, the surgical instruments assembled row by row in a series of steel-glass vitrines called “Doubt”, “Still”, “Invasion” – each is a variation on the minimalist aesthetic inflected with terror of mortality.

‘In and Out of Love’ (1991)

And that, pretty much, is all there is. By daringly editing Hirst’s work down to these icy essentials, while relegating the spot paintings to wallpaper, marginalising the spin paintings and completely excluding the inept photo-realist and “biopsy” paintings of 2007 and the disastrous 2009 “Blue” series, curator Ann Gallagher showcases the artist at his boldest, simplest and best – which is also his bleakest.

“I don’t think there’s any art that isn’t about death. That’s the reason why artists do it ... It’s just humans trying to avoid death and trying to make more of it than there is,” Hirst tells Nicholas Serota in a revealing catalogue interview. “It’s decorating the cave, isn’t it?”

‘A Thousand Years’ (1990)

Yet no artist has decorated today’s caves more prolifically and profitably than Hirst. François Pinault, Viktor Pinchuk, Miuccia Prada, Udo Brandhorst, Larry Gagosian, the Broad Foundation, the Mughrabi Collection – the lenders to this show read like a roll-call from a global art’n’money index. But Tate, with a duty to show art that is historically significant in formal terms, doesn’t know what to do with Hirst the postmodern capitalist, whose latter career has been one long parodic performance piece at once mocking and gambling on an unprecedentedly soaring art market. For as soon as Hirst both possessed money and made it his theme, he was finished as an artist and relaunched as a showman.

‘Beautiful, Childish, Expressive, Tasteless, Not Art, Over Simplistic, Throw Away, Kid’s Stuff, Lacking Integrity, Rotating, Nothing But Visual Candy, Celebrating, Sensational, Inarguably Beautiful Painting (For Over the Sofa)’, 1996

The first exhibition he ever organised, “Freeze” in 1988, demonstrated his flair as a curator; 20 years later he filled Sotheby’s with an array of garish factory-made formaldehyde animals – a zebra, a gold-ringed calf – and hundreds of other reworkings of his brand-name pieces, carefully calculated at different price levels, which sold for a total of £111m. Tate includes very few pieces from this sale: a small, economy-class shark, “The Kingdom” – sufficient to dramatise the huge gap in quality and effect between early and late, market-driven Hirst; a gold metallic spot painting “Tetrachlorauric Acid”; a four-metre stainless steel cabinet lined with cigarette butts, “The Abyss”; butterflies studded on shiny cubic zirconia in the diamond-shaped canvas “Midas and the Infinite”.

If the joke here is on late capitalist excess and the vacuous collectors who bought this trash, and who now watch Hirst’s auction prices spiral down from an average £880,000 before the 2008 sale to an average £44,000 last year, the deeper subject is surely the dead-end of Hirst’s own art. His diamond skull “For the Love of God”, exhibited in a black-cloaked cube in Turbine Hall, tells us he is King Midas, for whom wealth finally equalled death.

A woman walks by ‘The Incomplete Truth’ (2006)

“I just asked, what’s the maximum you can throw at death?” Hirst says in the catalogue. “When you look at the diamonds, they just shut you up on a biological level.”

Actually, they don’t. Rather, the skull announces that even as original a mind as Hirst’s cannot reinvent a conceptual art that has run its course. On this showing, Hirst was always destined for decadence because his most radical work was not the beginning of a new way of art-making but, in a brilliant convergence of form, meaning and subject, a great, last gasp of conceptual minimalism – austere and cold as death.

‘Damien Hirst’, Tate Modern, London, until September 9;

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