As 2022’s cold spring arrived, and the Russian incursion into Ukraine continued, I decided to refresh my palette with a hopeful new hue. A mix of napthol red and Gamblin’s warm white, it’s a clear coral that could easily careen into neon pink in another painter’s hands. I made a series of small paintings on paper, incorporating collaged, painted tissue paper and thick, gestural swaths of willow charcoal. That strident, not-cherry-blossom-pink became an emblem of spring for me, a way to visually flip the switch on the raggedly persistent gray days, wintry nighttime lows, and round-the-clock rain.
The series began with a walk past a streetside line of cherry trees, their blossoms drifting down to coat the sidewalk underfoot. A few blocks later, I saw several other cherry trees, severely and badly pruned, their few remaining blossoms reduced to feeble cris de coeur. I deleted my photos of them.
I thought about the British painter Damien Hirst and his recent two-year series of cherry blossom paintings. Up to 12 feet by nine feet (366 cm. By 274 cm.) each, numbering over 100, and apparently largely unironic, they are the subject of a large spring show in Tokyo. While Hirst is known for critiquing and subverting art history in his work, these paintings seem oddly crowd-placating. They remind me of the “immersive” Van Gogh and Monet shows currently touring U.S. cities, wherein attendees view supersized, backlit images of audience pleasers like “Starry Night” and “Waterlilies.” Hirst’s all-over patterns do interrogate Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock. He says as much in a comment about the series:
The Cherry Blossoms are about beauty and life and death. They’re extreme—there’s something almost tacky about them. Like Jackson Pollock twisted by love. They’re decorative but taken from nature. They’re about desire and how we process the things around us and what we turn them into, but also about the insane visual transience of beauty—a tree in full crazy blossom against a clear sky. It’s been so good to make them, to be completely lost in colour and in paint in my studio. They’re garish and messy and fragile and about me moving away from Minimalism and the idea of an imaginary mechanical painter and that’s so exciting for me.*
There is something wondrous about cherry blossoms’ abundance and transience. Each unique blossom, replicated seemingly without end, participates in a temporal, energetic heaven on earth, the subject of world-wide festivals both formal, and of the party-for-one variety. It’s this reverence that Hirst celebrates (or exploits, depending on your view of this canny artist).
Meanwhile, the naphthol and warm white color combo still excites me as I wind down my reveling in cherry blossoms’ annual, fleeting gifts. It might find its way into further paintings. Perhaps even larger ones–though not of Hirstian proportions: I don’t have his budget for paint.
*Exhibition notes, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. https://www.fondationcartier.com/en/editions/damien-hirst