Damien Hirst - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 7, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “I was always a colourist […] So that’s where the Spot paintings come 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.”
    —Damien Hirst 


    Mesmerising in its scale and the lively optical effects generated by vibrating chromatic relationships established across its gridded composition, Cupric Nitrate is a stunning example of British artist Damien Hirst’s celebrated series of Pharmaceutical Paintings. A defining aspect of the precocious ‘Young British Artist’s’ career, Hirst first embarked on the series in 1991, its conceptual roots underpinning and expanding his early investigations into colour, its organisation and the relationship between art and science that has proved to be an abiding conceptual touchstone across Hirst’s varied practice. Coming to auction for the first time, Cupric Nitrate was included in the Paris iteration of Hirst’s ambitious multi-venue presentation of Spot Paintings mounted by Gagosian Gallery across its eleven locations simultaneously in 2012, and in the first major museum retrospective of Hirst’s work, which opened at Tate Modern in London the same year. 

    Spots and Science


    Absolutely foundational to Hirst’s artistic project, the first Spot Paintings date from the very outset of the artist’s career, making a significant appearance in the final phase of the now legendary Freeze exhibition, curated by Hirst when he was still an undergraduate at Goldsmith’s in 1988 and featuring many friends and future YBA artists. Painted directly onto the wall of the Surrey Quays warehouse where the exhibition was staged, Hirst immediately grasped the significance of these meticulously spaced spots, finding that by imposing certain limitations on the size, spacing, and colour combinations of his dots, the format granted him almost infinitely variable results. Often likened to the jewel-like colours and clean uniformity of Hirst’s later Pill Cabinets, it is significant that the early Spot Paintings were created contemporaneously to his early and highly innovative Medicine Cabinets, where packets of his late grandmother’s old medicines were arranged, evoking the body and its internal organs in their presentation.

    Damien Hirst, Lullaby, the Seasons (detail of Summer), 2002. Image: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd/Artimage, Artwork: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2024

    Solidifying connections between the Medicine Cabinets and the formalised series of Pharmaceutical Paintings, the titles selected for the latter are taken at random from the alphabetically arranged catalogue of drug company Sigma-Aldrich’s products that Hirst first stumbled on by chance in the early 1990s. Appropriately, given the primacy of colour combinations and the eye’s response to them at work across the Spot Paintings, the title of the present work refers to the bright blue copper nitrate powder used in both medicines and insecticides, it’s dazzling colour the result of the chemical processes involved in its oxidisation state.

    Bridging the sense of order, primacy of the grid, and focus on scientific modes of categorisation that we find in the Medicine Cabinets with the exuberant and joyful approach to colour taken in his Spin Paintings and more recent series of Veil Paintings, the Pharmaceutical Paintings also explore more philosophical meditations on mortality, faith, and the relationship between art and science that continue to shape Hirst’s practice today. Meticulously arranged, Cupric Nitrate’s one-inch spots are evenly arranged with a corresponding space between each, a careful formula which activates the coloured spots to such a degree that the overall composition refuses to resolve completely.  As Michael Bracewell describes, drawn to ‘the warmer-coloured spots, the gaze then encounters seeming sudden diagonals, verticals or broken lines of semi-coherence; look again, and even these fleeting spooks of visual sense turn out to be illusions.i Yet, despite this energetic activity, the work achieves an incredible compositional balance and harmony rooted in the methodical, scientific approach to the composition based on a philosophy of chromatic relationships and their manipulation. Consistent with the execution of the Spot Paintings more broadly, the present work is rendered in uniquely mixed hues of household paint, with no single colour appearing twice; although painted methodically by hand, Hirst was interested in the idea of the works appearing to have been executed by a machine, or ‘by a person trying to paint like a machine.’ii

    Gerhard Richter, 256 Farben, 1974/1984, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Image/Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2024 (0019)

    In their more objective approach to colour, uniform arrangement, and interest in eliding the hand of the artist, Hirst’s Pharmaceutical Paintings draw compelling parallels to Gerhard Richter’s 1960s Colour Chart paintings, which adopted the formulaic painter’s colour charts as a tool for generating paintings more randomly, colours selected and arranged first by chance and later with the aid of mathematical systems. Like Richter, Hirst was looking for ways of engaging with colour without invoking the more expressive uses to which it had traditionally been employed. As Hirst explained, ‘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. […] 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.iii Nevertheless, as Hirst has emphasised over the years, more than a response to any individual artist or art historical movement, the Pharmaceutical and Spot paintings are primarily ‘about the urge or the need to be a painter above and beyond the object of a painting.’iv


    Damien Hirst, interviewed for Time on the occasion of his 2012 Gagosian show, which included the present work

    Collector’s Digest


    • Coming to prominence in the late 1980s as part of the group identified by collector and gallerist Charles Saatchi as a generation of ‘Young British Artists’, Damien Hirst is best known for his boundary-pushing sculptures of animals submerged in formaldehyde, his series of medicine cabinets, and his celebrated Spot Paintings.


    • Coming to auction for the first time, Cupric Nitrate was included in the Paris iteration of Hirst’s ambitious multi-venue presentation of Spot Paintings mounted by Gagosian Gallery across its eleven locations simultaneously in 2012, and in the first major museum retrospective of Hirst’s work, which opened at Tate Modern in London the same year.


    • Most recently, Hirst’s Spot Paintings have been reimagined once again with his series of Veil Paintings, a looser, more gestural treatment of the motif that nevertheless still adheres to the same basic principles of the foundational series as an investigation into chromatic behaviour. 

    Michael Bracewell, ‘Art Without the Angst’, in Jason Beard and Millicent Willner, eds., Damien Hirst, The Complete Spot Paintings: 1986 – 20011, London, 2012, p. 124.

    ii Damien Hirst, quoted in Jason Beard and Millicent Willner, eds., The Complete Spot Paintings: 1986 – 2011, London, 2012, p. 822.

    iii Damien Hirst, quoted in Damien Hirst, exh. cat., Museo Archeologicico Nazionale, Naples, 2004, p. 98.

    iv Damien Hirst, quoted in I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London, 1997, p. 246.

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Gagosian, The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011, 12 January-10 March 2012, pp. 450, 800, 850 (illustrated, p. 450; Gagosian, Paris, 2012 installation view illustrated, p. 800)
      London, Tate Modern, Damien Hirst, 4 April-9 September 2012, pp. 126, 234, 236 (illustrated, p. 126)

    • 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.

      View More Works


Cupric Nitrate

signed, stamped with the artist’s stamp, titled and dated ‘Damien Hirst D Hirst D Hirst “Cupric Nitrate” 2007’ on the reverse
household gloss on canvas
205.7 x 210.8 cm (81 x 83 in.)
Painted in 2007.

Full Cataloguing

£500,000 - 700,000 

Sold for £571,500

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2024