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Commercial publishing: Would you pay $250 for this Hirst catalogue?

Published to accompany his show of paintings at Gagosian in New York, it promises much but delivers little

It is perhaps apt that Damien Hirst’s critically panned, but commercially triumphant, exhibition of new paintings at New York’s Gagosian Gallery, “The elusive truth” should be commemorated in the form of a tombstone-sized slab of a book which weighs in at $250. Hirst is prone to a weighty tome, as was evidenced by his colossal 1997 I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now published by Booth Clibborn Editions, which consisted of a veritable goodie box of pop-up, pull-out tricks, complete with spinning spin paintings, changing colour dots and a vanishing shark, all of which originally sold for the surprisingly low price of £75 (achieved by bulk-printing in China).

The Gagosian book has a similar medicinal appearance to its predecessor and its fair share of stylistic gimmicks too, with each reproduction preceded by a blank page sporting a “peekaboo” cutout to expose a salient detail, while the book’s sole text, a J.G. Ballard short story, is reproduced on a pamphlet-like insert with striated pages resembling a catalogue for a pharmacutical company. There is a long tradition of artists having a close involvement in their exhibition catalogues, and in recent years commercial galleries have gone to ever greater pains to accompany their shows with quasi-institutional publications and, like so many publications currently emanating from the maw of the art market, The elusive truth is a deliciously desirable object, high on production values, but frustratingly low on hard information. Despite proclaiming the exhibition title on its cover it contains no list of works or any information to shed light on what was—notwithstanding its unfavourable reception—a significant new departure in Hirst’s work.

Yet, in its basic $250 form The elusive truth does not fully qualify as an artist’s book, either: it has not been produced in a numbered edition and nor is it signed by the artist, although there are other swankier versions that do, for a currently undisclosed price. None of this much matters to Hirst, of course, who goes to pains to keep a tight control over all his activities (the book is jointly published by Gagosian and Other Criteria, Hirst’s own publishing company) and who stands to make money from its sales. But given the dearth of proper scholarly analysis of his work, it is a shame that this opportunity was missed by a book which looks great, but yields little.

Of course, in common with most other items bearing the artist’s name, over time this book will probably be worth more than its original price, although a better investment would be to spend the $250 on a first edition of I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere etc (while first making sure, of course, that it is in good condition, with all the gizmos in working order). A mere £30 will, however, buy the most comprehensive, up to date overview of Hirst’s work, The agony and the ecstasy (Museo Archeologico Nazionale/Electa, Naples)—astonishingly, the only major museum catalogue devoted to his output (1989-2004) published to coincide with his exhibition of the same title in Naples at the end of last year.

Richly, but not ridiculously illustrated and containing a lucid and informative essay by exhibition curator Mario Codognato and an extended interview with the artist, this book will probably not yield a dramatic fiscal return. Instead it does something arguably much more valuable which is to take Hirst out of the market and put him into art history. (Although it is worth noting that the catalogue was sponsored by the Gagosian Gallery).

o Damien Hirst, The elusive truth (Gagosian Gallery, New York and London, and Other Criteria, London, 2005), 112 pp, 31 col. ills, $250 (hb) ISBN 1932598111