Derek Hirst



Not on display

Derek Hirst 1930–2006
Oil paint and acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 1220 × 1220 mm
Presented by Flowers Gallery, London in memory of Robert Heller 2013


Cardinal 1966 is a large square painting in oil and acrylic on canvas depicting a bright red dilapidated chair, its springs coiling chaotically across the image. A green cardboard box rests rather incongruously on the seat of the chair, with some of the springs taking on its colour. The painting was made after an extended trip to Spain, when the artist had returned to his native Yorkshire, and was first exhibited at Angela Flowers Gallery, London in 1970 where Hirst showed a series of seven paintings of disintegrating armchairs in various states. This painting, and others in the series including Red Angst 1966 (private collection, Canada), present recognisable chairs that seem to have suffered an explosion and are torn apart. Represented by bold forms of primary colours applied in flat acrylic paint, the chairs in this series have parts missing that appear like empty spaces in a jigsaw, ‘their white gaps and flat strong colours making the studies disturbingly unreal’. (Heller 2007, p.7.) Their titles are similarly allusive, the title of this painting presumably referring to the red colour vestments worn by Cardinals in the Catholic church. The chair paintings were based on photographs the artist took of abandoned armchairs which he discovered in a snowy field near Doncaster in Yorkshire, partially covered – or in some cases obliterated – by the snow. This interest in drawing attention to the importance of what cannot be seen as well as what can is explored further in Hirst’s series of living room interiors including Interior 1966–7 (collection unknown), in which the artist presents a colourful domestic scene taken directly from an aspirational lifestyle magazine. Deliberately omitting some of the domestic objects in this space, such as the lampshade, chair and coffee table, Hirst’s painted re-imaginings combine figuration and abstraction, representation with erasure.

Hirst’s armchairs also manifest the intense psychological life of a force greater than the sum of their weather-worn, workaday parts, the chair standing in for the absent occupant, its distressed state expressing the fragility of the human condition and the inevitable decay that awaits all things. In this regard Cardinal anticipates the ethereal landscape and sea paintings, such as Church Norton No. II 1985–6 (private collection), that Hirst would make later during his long-term battle with cancer. The critic Peter Fuller wrote that the series to which Cardinal belongs comprises ‘clever, careful documents which seem to take in Auto Destruction, Pop and Conceptualism in one fell swoop,’ while art historian Norbert Lynton viewed these pictures as ‘thick with overtones and undercurrents: suffering, a life spent in battle and nothing left from it but matter for the junk heap and for art’ (quoted in Heller 2007, p.15.)

Oscillating between abstraction and figuration and the artist’s interest in cognition, perceptual processes and emotion, Cardinal also anticipates Hirst’s paintings of doors and arches from the early 1970s that typify the ambiguous nature of his practice. His seductive and highly abstracted archways painted on relief panels, including Samarkand 1971–3 (CAM/JAP/Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon), present passageways as a metaphor for the boundary between the seen and unseen, interior and exterior. Seeing a correlation between these and the armchair paintings, Fuller wrote:

Although the subject of the arm-chair paintings was chaotic destruction, their content was the reverse: the images were built up with an intrinsic emphasis on the formal value of the relationships between the smallest elements in the context of perception. With the arch paintings, this process was turned round: their subject is a cool ‘classical’ formal device, but their content is, in psychological language, affective, and in ‘aesthetic’ terminology expressionistic.
(Peter Fuller, untitled essay in Derek Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Angela Flowers Gallery 1975, p.30.)

Further reading
Derek Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Angela Flowers Gallery, London 1975.
Derek Hirst: Paintings 1952–1992, exhibition catalogue, Flowers Gallery, London 1993.
Robert Heller, Derek Hirst, London 2007.
Derek Hirst: Interiors of a Kind, Paintings from the 1960s, exhibition catalogue, Flowers Gallery, London 2010.

Helen Little
August 2013

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