Damien Hirst - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, June 26, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Haunch of Venison, London
    Private Collection, Geneva (acquired from the above)
    Sotheby's, London, 15 February 2012, lot 26
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Literature

    Jason Beard and Millicent Wilner, eds., The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011, London, 2013, pp. 441 and 851 (incorrect orientation illustrated, p. 441)

  • Catalogue Essay

    A superb example of one of Damien Hirst’s most iconic series, Mercuric Thiocyanate, 2007 demonstrates the culmination of the artist’s career-long preoccupation with conceptions of mortality, analeptics, and the prescription drug industry. Mercuric Thiocyanate belongs to Hirst’s Pharmaceutical series, which inaugurated thirteen subseries within his larger Spot Paintings chapter, dating from 1986 to 2011. A monumental canvas comprised of two-hundred and forty uniformly-sized kaleidoscopic roundels against an ivory background, the painting establishes a chromatic yet minimalist field, disorienting the viewer with an inconceivable sense of depth. Through this formation of weightless dimension, Mercury Thiocyanate manifests the development of Hirst’s practice from Controlled Substance Key Painting, 1994, to a more abstract yet conceptual approach.

    The paintings included in the Pharmaceutical series, such as Mercuric Thiocyanate, acquired titles that Hirst selected from his personal copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference – an annually-published compendium of trade intelligence of prescription drugs – after their creation. Regarding the medicinal nature of the title, Hirst elucidated, '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', such as Mercuric Thiocyanate (Damien Hirst, 'On Dumb Painting', I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London, 1997, p. 246). Often mistaken for candy, due to the dots' vibrant and jovial palette, Hirst's pills visually eschew the toxicity of their namesake, 'Mercury(II) thiocyanate', or Hg(SCN)2, a chemical compound which was banned in Germany after the death of numerous children who had mistakenly consumed it in a solid state. A master of juxtaposing death with life and sickness with health, Hirst imbues Mercuric Thiocyanate with an ironic somberness, eliciting notions of ambivalence and conflict.

    Mercury Thiocyanate suggests an illusory sense of repetition; despite the stylistic duplication of the spots, each colour hue is distinct. Though immediately most evocative of Gerhard Richter’s Colour Charts, such as 180 Colors, 1971, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Hirst has asserted that any similarities between his Spot Paintings, such as Mercury Thiocyanate, and other painterly experimentation with colour distinction and repetition are purely formal, declaring that '[t]hey have nothing to do with Richter or Poons or Bridget Riley or Albers or even Op. They’re about the urge or the need to be a painter above and beyond the object of painting. I’ve often said that they are like sculptures of painting' (Damien Hirst, 'On Dumb Painting', p. 246). Mercury Thiocyanate also references its medium through its composition and technique, as the work engenders an immediate response with its seemingly sleek, minimalist approach, while the laborious, painstaking precision entailed with the creation of the work becomes conspicuous upon closer inspection. In this way, Mercury Thiocyanate is reminiscent of Pop Art in its nearly mechanical reproduction of each circle, while retaining the manual, intimate quality championed by the major abstract art movements of the 20th century.

    The individual shades of each spot engage with perceptions of infinity and randomness, suggestive of the role of chance in works by Jean Arp and Jackson Pollock. Moreover, there appears to be an undeniable similitude to Joseph Cornell’s Pharmacies created between 1943-1953, which included spiritual and creative 'medicine', such as maps and sand, instead of the traditional pharmaceuticals which he was forbidden to consume as a Christian Scientist. Contrarily, however, Hirst’s work is simultaneously more clinical and abstract than his predecessors. According to Michael Bracewell, the Spot Paintings such as Mercury Thiocyanate 'comprise "art" at its most intense – a concentrated and chemical version of itself, as clinical in its multiplicity as the drugs after which they are titled… While appearing laden with meaning – linguistic, pictorial, scientific – their power lies, paradoxically, in their very inscrutability' (Michael Bracewell, 'Art Without the Angst', in Jason Beard and Millicent Wilner, Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011, London, 2013, n.p.).

  • 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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Property from an Important Private Collector


Mercuric Thiocyanate

signed, titled and dated '"Mercuric Thiocyanate" 2007 Damien Hirst' on the reverse; further signed 'D. Hirst' on the stretcher
household gloss on canvas
175.3 x 297.2 cm (69 x 117 in.)
Painted in 2007.

£400,000 - 600,000 ‡♠

Sold for £447,000

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén

Director, Senior Specialist
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

44 20 7318 4060

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 27 June 2019