“To create that structure, to do those colours, and do nothing. I suddenly got what I wanted. It was just a way of pinning down the joy of colour.”
The spot paintings are amongst Hirst’s most widely recognised works. Of the thirteen sub-series within the spots category, the ‘Pharmaceutical’ paintings are the first and most prolific. There are over 1000 in existence, dating from 1986 to 2011.
In 1988, during the third and final stage of ‘Freeze’, Hirst painted two near-identical arrangements of coloured spots onto the wall of the warehouse. He called the works ‘Edge’ (1988) and ‘Row’ (1988). These paintings followed some loose hand-painted spots on board, dating from 1986, and the first spot work on canvas ‘Untitled (with Black Dot)’ (1988) – the only ‘Pharmaceutical’ painting ever to have incorporated a black dot. Following ‘Freeze’, Hirst started to refine his creative process. Slowly, he began to employ assistants to create the spot paintings. Any physical evidence of human intervention – such as the compass point left at the centre of each spot – was removed, until the works appeared to have been constructed mechanically, or “by a person trying to paint like a machine”. For Hirst, it was a departure from years of experimenting with paint and collage, and the first result of his search for a contemporary art form that could succeed without a reliance on “already organised elements.”
The random and infinite colour series within the ‘Pharmaceutical’ paintings is integral to the works. Hirst explains that, “mathematically, with the spot paintings, I probably discovered the most fundamentally important thing in any kind of art. Which is the harmony of where colour can exist on its own, interacting with other colours in a perfect format.” Any problems he had previously had with colour, Hirst claims, were removed by the perfect arrangement of complimentary, yet never repeated, colours in the spots.
The spot paintings vary in size from a 40 foot canvas containing spots of 1 inch, ‘Iodomethane- 13c’ (1999 - 2000), to ‘Erbium Oxide’ (2009), which has only four 60 inch spots, to ‘L-Leucine-15N’ (2001) – a 40 foot canvas on extended loan to The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Their titles are taken arbitrarily from the chemical company Sigma-Aldrich’s catalogue ‘Biochemicals for Research and Diagnostic Reagents’, a book Hirst stumbled across in the early 1990’s. The grid formula within the ‘Pharmaceutical’ paintings was the basis for an endless series. Over the last 24 years, Hirst has produced on average 60 spot paintings a year.
In 2012 Gagosian Gallery exhibited over 300 spot paintings across eleven gallery spaces worldwide. Conceived as a single exhibition, ‘The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011’ fulfilled Hirst’s longstanding ambition to show the works together. He explained in 2000 of the concept of an installation of multiple spot paintings, “it’s an assault on your senses. They grab hold of you and give you a good shaking. As adults, we’re not used to it. It’s an amazing fact that all objects leap beyond their own dimension.”