Damien Hirst - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, June 30, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'I once said that the spot paintings could be what art looks like viewed through an imaginary microscope.'
    —Damien Hirst

    Now spanning over a quarter of a century, Damien Hirst’s highly celebrated series of meticulously rendered Pharmaceutical Paintings have come to define the British artist’s prodigious output. 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, Furfuryl Mercaptan is a colossal and kaleidoscopic expression of Hirst’s broader series of Spot Paintings, to which the Pharmaceutical works belong, perfectly uniform in its compositional arrangement of 306 evenly spaced and uniquely coloured dots set against a brilliant white ground.


    Compounding associations between his paintings and scientific endeavour, the title of works from this series are selected at random from the alphabetically arranged catalogue of drug company Sigma-Aldrich’s products that Hirst first stumbled across in the early 1990s. Characterised by its bitter coffee taste, and used most often as a food flavouring agent, Furfuryl Mercaptan darkens to yellow as it stands, an appropriate selection of title for a work so interested in the properties of colour and the eye’s register of it. As Hirst has enthused: ‘I was always a colourist. I’ve always had a phenomenal love of colour […] So that’s where the Spot paintings came from—to create that structure to do those colours, and do nothing.’


    Damien Hirst, Row, 1988. Image: Edward Woodman, Artwork: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022.
    Damien Hirst, Row, 1988. Image: Edward Woodman, Artwork: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022


    Spots and Pills


    Sometimes likened to an array of different coloured pills, visualised more directly in Hirst’s later cabinets, the first spots date from the very outset of Hirst’s career, painted directly onto the wall of the Surrey Docks Warehouse in the final phase of the now legendary Freeze exhibition curated by Hirst as an undergraduate student at Goldsmith’s in 1988. Just as in the innovative Medicine Cabinets which he first embarked on during the same year, Hirst found that he could generate infinitely variable results from the imposition of certain limitations in terms of the size and colour of his forms, their arrangement in relation to one another, and the number of spots, pills, or boxes included in each work. 

    Like the glass-fronted cabinet, the grid structure of the Spot Paintings allowed for just such a formulaic approach. Arranged with 17 uniformly sized multichromatic spots along the vertical axis and 18 along the horizontal, Furfuryl Mercaptan posses a striking sense of compositional balance and harmony. 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.’i
    'I started them as an endless series like a sculptural idea of a painter (myself). 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 […] Art is like medicine, it can heal.' —Damien HirstAs Hirst quickly discovered with one of the first spot painting’s inclusion of a black dot, the colours possessed a remarkable mutability when placed next to one another, some appearing to recede while others jumped forwards in a manner that references Bridget Riley’s and Victor Vaserly’s foundational Op Art experiments of the 1960s. However, as Hirst has always insisted, the paintings are primarily about colour and the privileged position that it holds in his practice, claiming: ‘They have nothing to do with Richterm 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 a painting. I’ve often said they are like sculptures of paintings.’ii


    Victor Vasarely, Vega-Nor, 1969, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. Image: Peter Barritt / Alamy Stock Photo, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022


    A sophisticated presentation of the artist’s abiding interest in colour and its organisation, Furfuryl Mercaptan strikes a balance between art and science that has proven to be an abiding conceptual touchstone for Hirst’s practice. Marking a watershed moment in the critical recognition of the Spot Paintings , in 2012 Gagosian mounted a major solo exhibition The Complete Spot Paintings 1986–2011 across its galleries globally, the same year that Tate Modern presented his first significant museum retrospective.


    Damien Hirst, interviewed for Time on the occasion of his 2012 Gagosian show


    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.


    • Since 1998 when the artist curated his seminal Freeze exhibition including work from his Goldsmith’s peer group, Hirst has continued to exhibit internationally, with major shows at Tate Modern in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Examples of his work can be found in major institutions including the Tate, London; the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.


    • 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. 

    i Damien Hirst, quoted in The Complete Spot Paintings: 1986 – 2011, London, 2012, p. 822. 
    ii 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

      Gagosian Gallery, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2012

    • Literature

      Other Criteria and Gagosian Gallery, eds., The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011, Damien Hirst, London, 2013, no. 316, n.p. and p. 846 (illustrated)

    • 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


Furfuryl Mercaptan

signed 'D Hirst' on the strecher
household gloss on canvas
251.5 x 266.7 cm (99 x 105 in.)
Executed in 2004-2011.

Full Cataloguing

£400,000 - 600,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £491,400

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Head of Evening Sale
+44 7391 402741


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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 30 June 2022