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  • Provenance

    Gagosian Gallery, New York

  • Catalogue Essay

    They were looking at shiny colors and bright shapes and nice white coats and cleanliness and they were going right—this is going to be my saviour. And it didn’t ring true—it didn’t seem believable. DAMIEN HIRST

    (Interview conducted by G. Burn, appeared in “Damien Hirst: Pharmacy”, Tate: Online Project, London, ber 3, 2001)

    The roots of 20 Pills, 2004-2005, extend to Hirst’s first endeavors into Duchampian readymades. Among his earliest forays into medicinal art, Hirst’s artistic appropriations of pillboxes in medicine cabinets exposed society’s collective blind praise of medicine, each cabinet resembling a shrine to a newborn god. The cabinets rely on the sheer potency of their found objects. If “Duchampian readymades have been transposed from the morgue and the operating theatre to the gallery on the basis of the cold cargo of dread and terror that they carry,” Hirst preempts macabre horror in favor of medicinal dependence and existential quandary (G. Burn. “The Hay Smells Difference to the Lovers than to the Horses”, Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results and Findings, Edenbridge, 2000, p. 8). The medicine cabinets eventually culminated in 2000’s The Void, a reflective cabinet with hundreds of larger-than-life pills, each rendered in resin, metal, and plaster. The Void, more aesthetically seductive than the medicine cabinets, provides a sectioned portion as the subject of 20 Pills, 2004-2005.

    What makes 20 Pills, 2004-2005, so intriguing is not Hirst’s choice of subject (he has regularly dissected the relationship between science and art throughout his career), but the medium in which he chooses to render his subject. Indeed, 20 Pills, 2004-2005, which was produced in conjunction with his 2005 show, “The Elusive Truth”, at Gagosian Gallery, is something of a scientific experiment itself: the piece itself is a painting of a photograph of an artistic model of reality. At first, paint would seem as extraordinarily conservative a medium as possible for Hirst, who regular employs extremely avant-garde materials for his art. But instead of formaldehyde-immersed carcasses or vivisected bronze sculpture, the medium of paint allows sinister subtlety to display his artistic ingenuity. In 20 Pills, we find ourselves three degrees removed from actuality. The central question, however, is whether we are fewer or more than three degrees removed from existence as when we alter our reality with Hirst’s seemingly benign subjects. As science, and medicine in particular, earns the status of spiritual creed in our society, so it reaps the ire of Damien Hirst’s distrust.

    As in Hirst’s spot paintings, which entice the viewer in their universal appeal of unique colors, 20 Pills, 2004-2005, gives us an experience upon first view that is truly visceral; perhaps not on the level of content, but certainly from the perspective of color scheme—Hirst’s chromatics glow soft and are nearly pastel in their placidity. We see, on the space of four mirrored racks, twenty unique pills, all carefully oriented length-wise across the surface of their reflective surface. As a photograph is the basis for the oil-on-canvas before us, the orientation is a gaze from the above-left so as not to reveal any reflection of the camera.

    The pills’ chromatic organization is something of a marvel; the powder blues and gentle pinks of the more friendly subjects are offset by the deep amber and saturated reds of their quiet neighbors. The four-way reflectivity of the mirrored shelves conjure four perspectives of each pill. All in all, we are given a nearly thorough view of every pill’s surface, voyeurs to any secrets that the tablets may hold.

    Though at first glance we would be quick to label the present lot a still-life, its photographic basis alienates any such label. When closely examined, we see the revelations of its subject: blown-up to precisely five-by-six feet, Hirst’s section yields imperfections that spoil any attempt at photo-realism. In particular, there is the violence with which Hirst has truncated his frame, lending a mechanical brutality to the edges of 20 Pills, 2004-2005. In addition, as we see with the blue pill at the lower right-center and elsewhere, the painter’s attempts to render the insignia on the mirrored surface gives a false illusion of the insignia’s protrusion. These questions leave a sinister imprint on the picture, hinting at a subject rooted in immateriality.

    Beyond issues of technical composition, Hirst’s pill arrangement suggests poison far more malevolent. While many pills appear benign as candy, perhaps meant for treating headaches or indigestion, a blue and yellow pill with the label of “doryx” looms eagerly at the right of the painting. Among its playful neighbors, doryx is mainly prescribed for major bacterial infections. Hirst himself has admitted to eating harmful pills under the illusion that they were sweets as a child. This intentional confusion of mild with more severe medications belies our willingness to view the picture aesthetically; violence exists beneath our complacency.

    Hirst’s underlying cruelty is not limited to the realm of medicinal prescription, however—through the lens of commercial interest, we witness corporate conflict: “The demands of pharmaceutical competition place a high premium on the commercial capture of distinctive tablet geometries and colours, using the devices of painting to promote global branding, ensure instant recognition and to forge the loyalty of doctors and patients”(G. Poste, “Revealing Reality Within a Body of Imaginary Things”, Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results and Findings, Edenbridge, 2000, p. 104). In light of this violence in such aesthetically simple and pleasing shapes and colors, the pills come to embody commercial soldiers in organized war; drug companies engage in brutal competition in the quest to mask sometimes lethal toxicity with the gentleness that we usually associate with Flintstone vitamins.

    But to discern Hirst’s greatest revelation of truth in 20 Pills, 2004-2005, witness the biological destiny of the pills themselves: as the pills are ingested, they reveal that their tendency for entropy is inevitable as their façade of organization breaks down, leaving only atomized remains. The consequence of this destruction is our altered reality, either suspended from the pain of our headache or whisked away to life without depression. We manage to stave off death, but with the price of tainting our own verisimilitude. As Hirst divorces 20 Pills, 2004-2005, three times from its true reality, we must ask ourselves how many times we have chosen to distance ourselves from our own. Have our worlds been untouched by the influence of medicine, of quick cures and holy treatments? Or we are gradually floating away from life, time-released?

    “The whole notion that science can actually heal, even resurrect someone. That’s interesting, that. That’s science as the new religion.” (Damien Hirst from an interview conducted by Sean O’Hagan, New Religion, London, 2006, p. 5).

  • Artist Biography

    Damien Hirst

    British • 1965

    There is no other contemporary artist as maverick to the art market as Damien Hirst. Foremost among the Young British Artists (YBAs), a group of provocative artists who graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London in the late 1980s, Hirst ascended to stardom by making objects that shocked and appalled, and that possessed conceptual depth in both profound and prankish ways.

    Regarded as Britain's most notorious living artist, Hirst has studded human skulls in diamonds and submerged sharks, sheep and other dead animals in custom vitrines of formaldehyde. In tandem with Cheyenne Westphal, now Chairman of Phillips, Hirst controversially staged an entire exhibition directly for auction with 2008's "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever," which collectively totalled £111 million ($198 million).

    Hirst remains genre-defying and creates everything from sculpture, prints, works on paper and paintings to installation and objects. Another of his most celebrated series, the 'Pill Cabinets' present rows of intricate pills, cast individually in metal, plaster and resin, in sterilized glass and steel containers; Phillips New York showed the largest of these pieces ever exhibited in the United States, The Void, 2000, in May 2017.

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20 Pills

oil on canvas
60 x 72 in. (152.4 x 182.9 cm)
Signed, titled and dated “2004-2005, ’20 Pills,’ Damien Hirst” on the reverse.

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for $1,202,500

Contemporary Art Part I

7 November 2011
New York