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

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  • 'Art is like medicine – it can heal. Yet I’ve always been amazed at how many people believe in medicine but don’t believe in art, without questioning either.'
    —Damien Hirst
    Executed in 1992, Untitled AAAAA is an important early work by British artist Damien Hirst, representing not only a pivotal moment in the young artist’s career, but in the history of contemporary British art. An attractively sized example of one of Hirst’s celebrated Medicine Cabinets, it is a paradigmatic work that brings together key themes related to the body, mortality, art, and science that would go on to define his prodigious output. Conceived just as Hirst was establishing himself as the enfant terrible of the generation dubbed the Young British Artists, the Medicine Cabinets themselves are central to the Hirst oeuvre, laying the foundations for his later pill and diamond cabinets, guiding the investigations into colour as an organising principle that would form the basis of his celebrated Spot Paintings, and closely related to the iconic formaldehyde works of his Natural History series.


    While these formaldehyde works confront us with the universal inevitability and inescapability of death, the Medicine Cabinets speak more directly to the fragility of our individual bodies, our fear of death and of our inextinguishable desire to preserve our lives. Or, as the artist has more glibly put it, ‘You can’t arrest decay but these medicine cabinets suggest you can.’i Functioning in this respect like religious icons, the cabinets play on our capacity for belief and a need to make the unseen visible, and of modern medicine’s elevation to god-like proportions in its ability to protect us from death and disease.


    Damien Hirst at the No Sense of Absolute Corruption exhibition, Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1996. Artwork: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022  Early Medicine Cabinets
    Damien Hirst at the No Sense of Absolute Corruption exhibition, Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1996. Artwork: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022


    Early Medicine Cabinets

    Hirst first embarked on his Medicine Cabinets series in 1988 while still a student at Goldsmiths, constructing the very first cabinets Sinner and Enemy from MDF and empty packets of his grandmother’s medication that she left behind after her death. Inaugurating the rebellious spirit that would come to define the Young British Artists, Hirst developed this concept for his 1989 Goldsmiths degree show across a series of thirteen cabinets titled after songs from the iconic punk album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, explaining that ‘I like it when there is more than one way of saying something, like songs on an album’.ii

    'I’ve always seen medicine cabinets as bodies, but also like a cityscape or civilization, with some sort of hierarchy within it. It’s also like a contemporary museum of the Middle Ages. In 100 years time this will look like an old apothecary. A museum of something that’s around today.' —Damien Hirst

    Clean and precise in its presentation, Hirst’s earliest cabinets were imagined as ciphers for the human body, with medicines arranged schematically according to the location of the organ or part of the body they were manufactured to treat, the artist graphically explaining ‘I chose the size and shape of the cabinet like a body. I wanted it to be a kind of human, like with an abdomen and a chest and guts.’iv Moving away from these more corporeal associations, Hirst adopted a more detached approach, organising the packages according to the colours used in their design, as we can see in the present work’s meticulous arrangement of pills and boxes over three, smaller shelves. Conforming to the organisational principles and basic compositional harmonies of colour and form established across the wider Medicine Cabinet series, Untitled AAAAA belongs to a subset of twelve pieces, whose titles are a jocular reference to Hirst’s dentist at the time - who the artist would go on to thank directly in his 1995 Turner Prize acceptance speech.


    [Left] Joseph Cornell, Pharmacy, 1952-3, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2022
    [Right] Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © 2022 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London


    Hirst has likened these arrangements to the simple geometries, harmony, and seriality of Minimalism, explaining that ‘I like the way that you’ve got all these individual elements inside a cabinet related to organs inside a body. I like the kind of Koons consumerist feel to it. And then a lot of the actual boxes of medicines are all very minimal and could be taken directly from minimalism, in the way that kind of minimalism implies confidence.’v Certainly, this confidence is immediately translated here, where the careful arrangement of medications evokes the clean, sterilised world of the pharmacy as much as the ailing body itself, an idea that Hirst would develop in the ambitious installation Pharmacy, now held in the permanent collection of Tate Modern. As in Joseph Cornell’s earlier small series of Pharmacy boxes and their striking arrangement of colourful fragments of sand, shells, and newspaper, the rigidity of the grid is offset by a more ineffable, poetic dimension that conflates ideas about medicine, art, and the ephemerality of  life, while also borrowing from the colourful and loud use of commodity items evoked in 1960s Pop art.


    Collector’s Digest


    • One of the most controversial and provocative figures of contemporary art, Damien Hirst’s work has defined the YBA generation and continues to drive discussions around the role and meaning of art in the 21st century.

    • First conceived in the early 1990s, Hirst’s Medicine Cabinets rank amongst his most instantly recognisable and conceptually important series, with iconic early examples of these works held in major institutions around the world, including The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen in Munich.


    • Combining the seriality and formalism of the Spot Paintings with the philosophical dimensions of the formaldehyde works, the Medicine Cabinets are central to Hirst’s oeuvre. Having made their initial appearance in the artist’s Goldsmiths degree show in 1989, an example of these works has been included in every major survey exhibition since and in 2010 L & M Arts in New York presented The Complete Medicine Cabinets alongside a collection of memorabilia related to punk band The Sex Pistols. 

    i Damien Hirst, quoted in Adrian Dannatt, ‘Life’s Like This and Then It Stops’, Flash Art, No.  
    ii Damien Hirst quoted in Damien Hirst: The Complete Medicine Cabinets, (exh. cat.), New York, 2010,
    iii Damien Hirst, quoted in Adrian Dannatt, ‘Life’s Like This and Then It Stops’, Flash Art, 2 December 2016, online
    iv Damien Hirst, quoted in ‘Pharmaceutical Heaven’, Damien Hirst (exh. cat.), Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, 2004, pp. 105 – 106. 
    v Damien Hirst, quoted in Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London, 2002, p. 25. 

    • Provenance

      White Cube, London
      Galerie Bruno Brunnet, Berlin
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Damien Hirst, I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London, 1997, pp. 221, 333 (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


Untitled AAAAA

glass, painted MDF, ramin, steel, plastic, aluminium and pharmaceutical packaging
78 x 101.6 x 23 cm (30 3/4 x 40 x 9 in.)
Executed in 1992.

Full Cataloguing

£350,000 - 450,000 ‡ ♠

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