Damien Hirst

Controlled Substance Key Painting


Not on display

Damien Hirst born 1965
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 1220 × 1224 × 40 mm
frame: 1307 × 1303 × 81 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


Controlled Substances Key Painting (Spot 4a) belongs to Hirst’s group of Controlled Substances Paintings, themselves a subset of the ongoing series of paintings, titled The Pharmaceutical Paintings but more commonly known as the spot paintings, that the artist initiated in 1988. Based on the simple format of the grid, the paintings feature circular ‘spots’ of coloured paint lined up at regular intervals, with the spaces between them always the same distance as their diameter, on a white background. Although the colour placement in these paintings appears random, it is the result of an aesthetic or ‘emotional’ decision. As the artist has explained,

I started them as an endless series ... a scientific approach to painting in a similar way to the drug companies’ scientific approach to life. Art doesn’t purport to have all the answers; the drug companies do. Hence the title of the series, The Pharmaceutical Paintings, and the individual titles of the paintings themselves: Acetaldehyde (1991), Albumin Human Glycated (1992), Androstanotone (1993) ... On each painting no two colours are the same ... I can still make all the emotional decisions about colour that I need to as an artist, but in the end they are lost.

(Quoted in Hirst, p.246.)

Hirst bought the Physicians’ Desk Reference, a commercially published compilation of manufacturers’ information on prescription drugs, updated annually, to choose the names of pharmaceuticals for his spot paintings. He later commented that ‘it was just an afterthought to name them after drugs, based on this book, but I saw it and thought: I have just got to do all of them’ (quoted in Damien Hirst, p.113).

The Controlled Substances Paintings refer specifically to dangerous drugs – drugs that are ‘controlled’ so that they cannot be accessed by the non-medical public. The series began in 1993 with canvases titled Opium, Morphine Sulfate and Inovacodeine (reproduced Hirst, p.245) among others. The Key Paintings differ from all the other spot paintings by the inclusion of text with the coloured circles. Composed of thirty-six spots, arranged in a grid six rows by six columns, they are headed by the title words, ‘CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES’, painted in black along the upper margin of the canvas. Each circle of colour is accompanied by a letter of the alphabet, beginning with A and continuing down the rows until Z, after which a numerical sequence follows from 1 through 9, followed by 0, painted in black to its right. Hirst has created Controlled Substances Key Paintings in four dimensions; they all contain the same colours and textual additions. The smallest, known simply as Controlled Substances Key Painting 1993 (reproduced Logical Conclusions: 40 Years of Rule-Based Art, p.115) is identical in colour and structure to AR00498 and exactly one quarter the size, each of its spots being 1” in diameter, as opposed to 4” in the case of AR00498.

Although they superficially relate to them, Hirst’s spot paintings differ significantly from the colour chart paintings made by German artist Gerhard Richter (born 1932) during the 1960s and 1970s. Inspired by industrial painters’ colour charts, Richter’s paintings began as a way to generate paintings randomly, allowing first chance and later mathematical systems, to select colour and determine the order of its placement on the canvas. Richter’s goal was to challenge abstract colour theorists such as Wasssily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and Joseph Albers (1888–1976) and became purely conceptual. By contrast, the simple but rigid structure of Hirst’s spot paintings allows him to avoid the appearance of expressiveness while retaining its process. He has explained:

The first idea was just questioning ... painting. I came from that kind of background of Rothko painting: paint how you feel ... When I got to Goldsmiths I had a real problem with that kind of expressionism. Because I suddenly realised that it wasn’t really working, but I still had the desire. So, I was trying to scientifically reduce that urge into something ... Thinking of a sort of unemotional machine that makes paintings. Trying to place all those expressive decisions made about colour into a grid to create a system where you could just paint how you feel because in the end it is pointless. It doesn’t matter how you feel, they always come out happy ... They just looked brilliant so I just carried on making them.

(Quoted in Damien Hirst, p.98.)

In conversation with Gordon Burn in 1999 (Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001), Hirst identified the idea of the spot paintings as a critical moment in his development as an artist. It occurred during his last year as a student at London’s Goldsmith’s College (BA Fine Art 1986–9), when he curated the exhibition Freeze in an empty warehouse in the Docklands. The work in this exhibition changed at periodic intervals, and it was during the last phase of it that Hirst abandoned his three-dimensional collage constructions, largely inspired by the German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948), and painted two spot paintings directly on the wall. Hirst described a shift from looking downwards – hunting for old rubbish for his collages on the ground – to looking up at ‘advertising billboards and TV and magazine images and fashion and design and film’ (Hirst and Burn, p.119) that completely transformed his practice. He elaborated:

I was always a colourist ... I just move colour around on its own. So that’s what the spot paintings came from – 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 ... 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, whatever you do with the colour ... they don’t go wrong ... The spot paintings are ... just like, a very exciting discovery, where you get this scientific formula that you add to this sort of mess.

(Hirst and Burn, pp.119–20 and 126.)

The two wall paintings of 1988, titled Edge and Row (reproduced Hirst p.169), drew attention to themselves because of their large scale and the cropping of one edge or row of spots on each grid, giving rise to their titles. When he moved the spots to canvas in around 1990, Hirst painted his first few spot paintings himself, before passing the making of them to his studio assistants. Since this time, over eight hundred spot paintings have been produced. Each spot has a hole at the centre, caused by the foot of the compass, which is painstakingly filled and sanded down so that it disappears (Hirst and Burn, pp.90 and 120). They range from tiny canvases containing a single or even half a spot – such as 5-Bromo-2-Deoxycytidine 1996, which measures 1 x ½ inches – to triangles, rectangles and other forms of parallelogram several metres across. More recently Hirst has applied the spots to circular canvases and prints.

Although they were begun as an endless series, Hirst has long been divided over this issue, saying in the mid 1990s:

I want them to be an endless series, but I don’t want to make an endless series. I want to imply an endless series ... Imagine a world of spots. Every time I do a painting a square is cut out. They regenerate. They’re all connected ... this is more sculpture than painting. I guess it’s infinity ... I don’t like the idea of doing them forever because it implies that there is no escape. I like the idea of working it out of my system before I die. I like to imagine that art is more theatrical than real. So an involvement forever is real whereas an implied ‘forever’ is theatrical.

(Quoted in Damien Hirst: No Sense of Absolute Corruption, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, New York 1996, pp.11–13.)

In 2004 Hirst announced that he would end the series, soon (Damien Hirst, pp.96 and 98). He has recently confirmed this, saying: ‘I felt for ages that those “spot” and “spin” paintings [see P13034P13056] were getting wrapped around my neck and I needed to make something more, something deeper ... I’m bringing everything to an end ... The spots and spins are all ... this nihilistic, celebratory denial of a painter ... I realised I couldn’t deny it any more.’ (Quoted in Ossian Ward, ‘Damien Hirst’, Time Out, October 8–14 2009, p.12.)

Further reading:
Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London 1997, p.245.
Eduardo Cicelyn, Mario Codognato and Mirta D’Argenzio, Damien Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples 2004.
Logical Conclusions: 40 Years of Rule-Based Art, exhibition catalogue, Pace Wildenstein, New York 2005, pp.114–5.

Elizabeth Manchester
October 2009

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Online caption

This canvas is constructed using a grid of dots of different colours, accompanied by letters in alphabetical order that seem to dissect and reorganise the very matter of painting into cells. Hirst has said that he only painted five of his spot paintings himself, since he found them so boring to paint and could not do them as well as his assistants. But the key thing about these works is their conceptual clarity – the potentiality of making an infinite number and variety of paintings, based on size and colour of the dots and size and shape of the canvases. Like Andy Warhol, whom Hirst greatly admires, Hirst has set up a sort of factory with assistants to help him make his works of arts. Like Warhol, Hirst retains central control of what and how it is produced.

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