Written by Susanne Roald
The painting Chloramphenicol Acetyltransferase belongs to the series Spot Paintings, which consist of canvases featuring systematically painted circles in different sizes and colour combinations. After having created his first famous series of paintings, Butterfly Colour Paintings, where butterflies were attached to monochrome canvases, Hirst began to produce two new series in the late 1980s: Spot Paintings and Spin Paintings. Each of these series of paintings investigates one of two basic forms of modernist abstraction: idealised geometry and gestural freedom. Both series are also characterised by a nearly infinite serial repetition that is the result of unlimited groupings of colour combinations, formats and titles.
Hirst made thirteen sub-series of the Spot Paintings series, but it is the series of paintings with a pharmaceutical theme, the Pharmaceutical Paintings, that were the first and the most prolific. The painting Chloramphenicol Acetyltransferase is an early specimen from the series. To date, Hirst has produced over 1300 Spot Paintings and has stated: “Everything I’ve ever done has been about painting, I think. About the road to painting in some way.”[i]
The Spot Paintings series can be connected with his student years at Goldsmiths College, where Hirst acquired knowledge about expressionist painting techniques and how emotions could be expressed through colour. This painting method did not correspond with Hirst’s own artistic vision, and thus sculpture and construction gradually became a more natural choice for him. As he had a long-standing desire to master the art of painting, he cast aside the training from his student years and instead introduced a sculptural element into his paintings, as can be seen in the Spot Paintings. While the expressionist approach focused on free painting techniques and colour symbolism, the Spot Paintings are precise geometric compositions with a systematic choice of colours. Through the construction, composition and colour systematisation of the motifs, these paintings illustrate Hirst’s sculptural approach, thus also clarifying his view of painting and painterly possibilities. With regard to the Spot Paintings Hirst himself explains that “mathematically, with the spot paintings, I probably discovered the most fundamentally important thing in any kind of art. Which is the harmony of where colour can exist on its own, interacting with other colours in a perfect format.”[ii]
As for the choice of colours in the Spot Paintings, Hirst has explained that from the very beginning of his work with the series he established a rule that he has followed ever since: one colour would never be repeated twice in the same painting. Although some colours may appear to be almost exactly alike there is always a small difference between them. This approach to using colour was also typical of John Hoyland (1934-2011), one of Hirst’s artistic role models. The colours in Hirst’s paintings are, like Hoyland’s, placed in an organised chaos with very slight differences in hue.
Whilst still a student, Hirst began exploring spot painting with the work Spot Painting (1986), a painting with loose hand-painted spots on board. In 1988 he continued in this direction by painting two nearly identical arrangements with coloured spots directly onto a wall as part of the legendary art exhibition Freeze, which Hirst helped to organise in a disused factory in London. After producing these works, which he named Edge and Row, he developed the concept further from the spot compositions and painted the very first spot work on canvas, Untitled (With Black Dot) (1988). This is the only Pharmaceutical painting to feature a black dot. The colour black has never been used again because it contrasts too sharply with the other colours in the compositions. In their entirety, the Spot Paintings are ambiguous – they are all hand painted, while at the same time all physical traces of human intervention have been removed so that the motifs appear to have been constructed mechanically.
The painting Chloramphenicol Acetyltransferase contains 154 spots and a column of 28 half-spots placed slightly to the right of the picture surface. The painting has a unique position in the Astrup Fearnley Museet, as it was custom made for the collection after the acquisition of Mother and Child (Divided) (1993). The division of the dots is intended as a parallel to the bisection of the cow and the calf in the iconic formaldehyde work, and thus creates a dialogue between the two works. The title refers to a bacterial enzyme and – as with all paintings in the series – it was chosen arbitrarily from the Biochemicals for Research and Diagnostic Reagents, Sigma-Aldrich catalogue, a supplier of research chemicals and laboratory equipment. The painting is the result of a scientific approach where colours are deliberately composed and organised. By means of the arbitrary and endless colour combinations, the titles and the compositions, Hirst has created a system where the end result will always be the same: an interminable series. In its use of the chemically related title and in its composition as a whole, this work thus harmonises well with Hirst’s keen focus on science in his practice.