Damien Hirst: Bad Boy Makes Good
Source:Time Author:Richard Lacayo Date: 2008-09-05 Size:
For more than a decade Damien Hirst has been one of the richest and most famous artists in the world. All the same, when you sit down with him, he still seems surprised by it. "I grew up with quite an impoverished background.

The famed artist Damien Hirst. Pal Hansen for TIME
For more than a decade Damien Hirst has been one of the richest and most famous artists in the world. All the same, when you sit down with him, he still seems surprised by it. "I grew up with quite an impoverished background," he says. "I didn't see any possibility that I would ever get paid for doing anything 
 I enjoyed." Hirst tells me this one rainy afternoon in July at one of his many studios. This one is in Stroud, a rural town in Gloucestershire, about two hours' drive west of London. When he says this I think immediately about the bull in the next room, which I'm pretty sure he enjoyed coming up with, and very sure he's about to be paid for. A lot, actually.

The bull is called The Golden Calf and it's headed to market at Sotheby's in London, where it will be the star of a much hyped two-day sale of 223 works by Hirst that begins on Sept. 15. This will be the first time any auction house has sold a quantity of work fresh out of an artist's studio. As auction prices for contemporary art have rocketed ever higher, galleries have been dreading this very possibility: that a famous artist would bypass his dealers — who usually get a cut of roughly half of a work's sale price — and make straight for the auction houses. (The auctioneer's fee is paid by the buyer on top of the sale price, which means Hirst will walk away with pretty much every dollar his work gets hammered down for.) If it meets expectations, the sale could put about $120 million into Hirst's already well-lined pockets, a payday unlike anything any living artist has seen. And The Golden Calf will be the prime lot, with a presale estimate of $14.6 million to $22 million. Sometimes a bull is truly a cash cow.

And also a very witty performance. The Golden Calf is a white bullock preserved in a tank of formaldehyde that's mounted on a high marble plinth. His hooves and horns are 18-carat gold. His head is crowned by a gold Egyptian solar disk. Seen head-on, he's a false idol whose headgear is simultaneously silly and mesmerizing. (Hirst is assuming his buyers know the Bible story about worshipping a false god, just like the one they are about to worship.) But the beast is best seen in profile, the view that leaves you to reconcile as best you can his hieratic gravity with the laugh-out-loud abundance of his genitals. When Hirst is good, he's good, and The Golden Calf is a nimble concoction, designed to all at once beguile, flatter and parody the big-swinging billionaires who are likely to bid on it.

And when Hirst is not good? He's still a cash cow. Over the past two decades, with work of very fluctuating quality, Hirst has assembled a net worth that the Sunday Times of London estimated earlier this year at $364 million. The money has bought him a farm in Devon where he lives with his companion Maia Norman and their three sons; a Gothic Revival mansion that he plans to convert into a private museum; and a house in Mexico where the family relocates for three months a year so Maia, who's Californian, can surf. When he's in London for a few days each week he takes a suite at Claridge's, the last word in posh hotels. For a boy raised in what was then the threadbare industrial city of Leeds, it's nice. Or as Hirst puts it: "I like having the doormen say: 'Welcome home, sir.'"

The money also pays for his small army of studio assistants. Hirst employs 120 people at six locations in England, including two massive facilities in Gloucestershire housed in converted World War II airplane hangars. Not all of his people work on the manufacturing end, but scores of assistants execute his product-lines-on-canvas, which are hugely profitable but for the most part aesthetically negligible. Those include hundreds of "spot paintings," each a multicolored grid of little circles and named after a pharmaceutical product; "spin paintings" made by pouring paint onto a whirling disk; and "butterfly paintings" made by embedding dead butterflies in pigment and resin, sometimes in elaborate stained-glass-window formations, sometimes just attached here and there on the canvas. At Sotheby's the spin paintings are expected to fetch as much as $720,000 each, the spots as much as $1.2 million.

Hirst's gift, when it's with him, is for black comedy, William Hogarth meets Stanley Kubrick — work that's part deadpan joke, part dead serious utterance about mortality and decay. The piece that first made him famous, an open-jawed shark in a tank of formaldehyde titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, offered a giant beast of prey as a belligerent correlative for a universally suppressed anxiety. A Thousand Years is a large glass box in which real maggots hatch into flies that appear to feed on blood (actually red sugar water) from a severed cow's head, then are killed by an electric bug zapper — the tragic cycle of life and death played as low farce by the lowest orders. And there's something both hilarious and chilling about his Lullaby series, steel and mirror-glass medicine cabinets in which colorful pills are meticulously organized into glittering reliquaries.

But Hirst's career always threatens to amount to a core of genuine invention surrounded by a vast penumbra of middling merchandise. In all likelihood the huge Sotheby's sale will be another milestone in his financial victory march. But it may also be a terminus, a house-cleaning by a man overtaken by his own success. Hirst has been thinking out loud lately about finding some new directions. For one thing, he says he's going to quit doing the spin and butterfly paintings, and slow down the production of animals in vitrines. He's said this before, but this time he seems to mean it. In June he turned 43 — an age, he says, when "you start thinking you're going to need something else. Something more personal and quieter and darker."


The Color of Money

Hirst never met his biological father. He was raised mostly by his mother, Mary Brennan, who lives next door to his home in Devon. A stepfather departed when he was 12. As a boy, Hirst liked to draw, and eventually he was accepted by Goldsmiths College at the University of London. It was as a second-year student that he did the thing that first put him on the map.

"Freeze" was an exhibition of work by Hirst and 15 fellow students that he organized in 1988 in a rented warehouse in the London docklands. He persuaded figures of consequence in the British museum world to take a look, and over the next few years whipped up a storm of coverage from a British media that, in those days, rarely paid much attention to new art, except to stick out its tongue. "I grew up in a background of people who weren't into art," he recalls. "They'd say: 'If you can do a drawing that looks like me and you can put it in a pub and people think that's me, that's art. Not what you do.' So I was always fighting for art, trying to push things forward."

When you ask Hirst about his early influences, it's not an artist he brings up first. It's Charles Saatchi, a former ad tycoon and collector who established a gallery in 1985 to show his own collection. The sheer size of the place made Hirst think big. "I had never seen a gallery of that scale," he says. "Britain was always small. Then Saatchi came and put things on a big f___ing American scale. So I just started making work like that. It didn't matter that I didn't know where to put it."

By the early 1990s Saatchi was one of Hirst's biggest collectors and promoters. It was Saatchi who commissioned that pickled shark, which he sold 13 years later to American hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen for a reported $12 million. It was Saatchi who bundled Hirst together with other British artists he collected, like Sarah Lucas and Marc Quinn, to create the media phenomenon called Young British Artists. What they had in common other than age was work that was abrasive, unconventional and a little unappetizing — Lucas' first solo exhibition was called "Penis Nailed to a Board"; Quinn produced a self-portrait bust made from his own frozen blood. It was also calculating, the kind of work summed up as willing to shock, but sometimes it had less to do with shock than with the enduring British qualities of loathing and anger.

Hirst was the de facto leader of the pack and a bad boy at the center of every party. He drank heavily and knew all about the business end of a cocaine straw. A turning point came when he met Frank Dunphy, his genial but very shrewd business manager and empire builder. Dunphy is a 70-year-old Irishman who once handled the books for acrobats, jugglers and "exotic" dancers. In the mid-'90s he agreed to help Hirst straighten out a tax problem. Hirst says Dunphy promised to make him money. "I said, 'You're an accountant — you mean save me money.' And he said, 'No, no, make you money.' "

He meant it. In time, Dunphy would take all of the wayward boy's business affairs in hand, not least renegotiating Hirst's split with dealers. Dunphy says Hirst's galleries now accept an arrangement that gives the artist as much as 70% of the sale price, instead of the standard 50%. But even with that advantageous formula, an auction in which Hirst reaps almost all the profits, while merely covering some sundry costs, was too much to resist. He'll still work with dealers, says Dunphy. But "Damien's far enough up the greasy pole now to be his own man."

The dealers Hirst will continue to work with are two of the most prominent in the business: the American Larry Gagosian (who has galleries in New York City, Los Angeles, London and Rome) and Jay Jopling, a longtime friend of Hirst's who owns London's White Cube gallery. When Sotheby's announced the Hirst sale, it immediately set off speculation that other artists — the ones with enough clout — would also bolt the gallery system. The two most obvious possibilities are the American Jeff Koons and the Japanese Takashi Murakami. Both have, just like Hirst, global name recognition and a squad of assistants turning out work. Both are represented by Gagosian. In the Sotheby's press release announcing the sale, Jopling and Gagosian gamely said they would go on working with Hirst. Gagosian even promised to be at the sale, "paddle in hand" — probably wishing he could spank Hirst with it.

Within the art world, the announcement of Hirst's Sotheby's sale did not really come as a surprise. The last few years have seen a phenomenal increase in auction prices for contemporary art. Many of the buyers come from Russia, Asia and the Middle East, where a new class of billionaire collectors has emerged. It was none other than the royal family of Qatar that briefly made Hirst the most expensive living artist at auction last year by paying $19.2 million for Lullaby Spring, one of his medicine-cabinet pieces.

Artists, however, don't ordinarily get a dime from auction sales of their work. The money goes to the sellers and the auction house. But where is the rule that an artist can't sell his own work at auction? And it was always likely that Hirst would be the first artist to do that. He has the production capacity to supply a big sale, the name recognition, and a relationship with Sotheby's that began four years ago with a London auction of just about everything that wasn't nailed to the floor at Pharmacy, a celebrity-magnet restaurant co-owned by Hirst that gradually lost its magnetism and closed. That sale brought a jaw-dropping $20 million for everything from artworks to Hirst-designed martini glasses. Then, in February, he worked with Sotheby's in New York to solicit 100 major artists, including Jasper Johns and Anish Kapoor, to donate work to a sale that raised $42 million for RED, a socially conscious business venture cofounded by his rockstar friend Bono.


Spin Cycle Complete

Over the summer the Sotheby's sale — which has one of those wonderfully daft Hirst titles, "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever" — got the kind of presale treatment that Boeing and Airbus give the rollout of a new jetliner. In August a selection of the material was shipped for viewing to the Hamptons, the weekend retreat for New York millionaires. It also went to New Delhi, to wink at India's increasingly powerful collectors. In June Hirst flew to Kiev to attend a Paul McCartney concert and a party hosted by Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian steel billionaire who owns seven Hirsts and a private art museum. A month later the artist gave a private tour of some of the Sotheby's work to Daria Zhukova, a young, London-based art impresario. Her boyfriend is Roman Abramovich, the Russian owner of Chelsea Football Club, who this year alone was widely presumed to be the buyer of a $33.6 million Lucian Freud that set an auction record for the work of a living artist, and an $86.3 million Francis Bacon that set a record for postwar art.

The global sales campaign may be a good idea. In August, the Art Newspaper reported that Hirst's London gallery White Cube had a backlog of over 200 of his unsold works, worth more than $185 million. If the story is correct — the gallery says it's not, but hasn't detailed how many Hirsts it has on hand — it would mean that Hirst has run into that age-old problem of factory production: excess inventory. A few weeks ago Bloomberg.com quoted Robert Sandelson, a London gallerist who has dealt in Hirst, about the "pressure" that overproduction has placed on the market for spot and spin paintings. According to Bloomberg, one of those, Hydrocodone, sold at Christie's in London last year for $818,000, but resold this year at Sotheby's in New York for only $589,000.

This may be another reason, apart from the impulse to explore new avenues, why Hirst has decided to throttle back production of the spin and butterfly paintings. The Sotheby's sale is also a canny way of getting his name out to new buyers. "There's our global reach," says Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby's European chairman of contemporary art. "We're everywhere, and we act as a magnet for all the new people coming into the market." And a lot of those people might be more comfortable in an auction house — where anyone with cash can flex their muscles — than in top galleries, where dealers sometimes try to place works only with important collectors who might lend or give them to major museums. It's all part of any dealer's service to the artist's long-term reputation, but it can have the effect of discouraging less prominent customers. This is how Hirst sees it too. "I hate the way when you walk into a gallery and say you want to buy a Damien Hirst they say: 'Who are you?' I much prefer to be in a shop where you can just go in and buy it."

Meanwhile, the future of Hirst's market is also affected by the so far inconclusive fate of his most highly publicized project, a diamond-encrusted skull he unveiled last year called For the Love of God. As a trope for human folly and cupidity, a glittering death's head is as tired as it gets. Hirst's twist, such as it was, was to have the thing manufactured at a stratospheric level of crass luxury — a platinum skull layered with 8,601 diamonds — then to offer the poisoned apple to the world's billionaires for $100 million. At that price level it would not only be the most expensive work by a living artist, but a punch line to Hirst's conceptualist joke about the madness of the overheated art market. Just like The Golden Calf, the diamond skull would go into the world to prove its own argument about false values.

Or at least that was how it was supposed to work. About a year ago Hirst announced that the skull had fetched the full $100 million price. But the purchasers turned out to be a still unidentified consortium of investors that include Dunphy, Jopling and Hirst. Dunphy says the three of them maintain a "controlling interest in the work" — meaning they sold the biggest stake to themselves. Eventually, he insists, they will resell it, after it has toured a few museums. A planned exhibition at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg fell through — Dunphy says he and the museum couldn't agree on security costs — but the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam will be showing it for six weeks starting in November. "By the way," Dunphy insists, "the price of it now would be double."

Dunphy is routinely described as a father figure to Hirst. When Hirst is in London they regularly breakfast together, with Hirst always doing a little sketch of Dunphy at the table. The Irishman talks disapprovingly of Hirst's old party habits, and you sense that he played a role in Hirst's decision a few years ago to give up drugs and booze. "When I was drinking I thought I was working at half power," Hirst says. "But when I stopped I realized 
 I had been working on, like, 10%."

Hirst also seems to have a second father figure — the painter Francis Bacon, who died in 1992. Hirst says Bacon's bleak, tumultuous work made an impression on him early: "It was like album-cover art. It was gory, high impact. When you're young you love that kind of stuff. But then I started painting, and everything I was painting was kind of shit Bacons, really bad copies. So I gave up."

All the same, Hirst found early on an equivalent in his own work for Bacon's key motif: tortured figures writhing within a bright, clinical space. Hirst's meticulous glass tanks have some of the same feel about them, sanitary enclosures for something menacing (that shark), visceral (a bisected calf) or even putrid (that cow's head). In recent years Hirst has also begun to absorb Bacon's actual imagery into his tanks of formaldehyde. Two years ago he showed a work derived from one of the anguished triptychs Bacon made after the suicide of his lover George Dyer — with slaughtered sheep substituted for Dyer. Hirst has been buying Bacons as well, five of them so far, including a self-portrait he picked up last November for $33 million.

For the last couple of years Hirst has also been painting again — actually painting, as in the kind of pictures an artist produces with his own hand, not through assistants — and always with a sense of Bacon looking over his shoulder. If he continues to go this route it's a big risk. He's given no evidence up to now that he knows what to do with a brush, and there are plenty of people waiting for him to fall on his face.

So far he hasn't exhibited any of these pictures, but I saw transparencies of some of them in London — figurative work in a dark Bacon-ish key. He's still finding out what kind of painter he is. He's even begun to think of his mass-produced paintings as a means he used to avoid becoming a painter of another kind. "The spot paintings, the spin paintings," he says, "they're all a mechanical way to avoid the actual guy in a room, myself, with a blank canvas."

Meanwhile, though he might not know it, Hirst has already produced his self-portrait. It's The Golden Calf, a king of the artworld hill, worshipped for being golden, and burdened by it too. Maybe after it's sold and gone Hirst really will be able to move on to another stage of his career.

Going once. Going twice.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo