In and out of love with Damien Hirst
Making sense of spots, sharks, pills, fish and butterflies
By Sarah Thornton. Features, Issue 195, October 2008
Published online: 23 October 2008
I wanted to be stopped and no one stopped me. I wanted to find out where the boundaries were. So I’ve found that there aren’t any.” Damien Hirst might have declared as much after Sotheby’s announced the results of its auction “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” last month. But he actually voiced this thought 12 years ago when he was already somewhat bewildered by the Midas touch bestowed upon him by his fame. For all the risk-averse repetition in his recent art, Hirst is a daredevil when it comes to business strategy and public statement. On Channel 4 News in the week leading up to the Sotheby’s sale, Hirst lamented ironically, “All my heroes never sold out.” Indeed, as the ringleader of an art movement characterised by its youth, Hirst faces all the problems of an aging rock star, avoiding overblown parodies of his early work and sidestepping the critics who only respect the tunes he sang before he went electric.
As the whole world—not just the art world—puzzles over the latest spectacle in the Hirst phenomenon, we try to make sense of his unwieldy oeuvre. Where did his various artistic series come from? What are their critical and commercial highs and lows? What kind of artist has he become?
The first Hirst objects to make an impact were white wooden shelf units with careful arrangements of pharmaceutical boxes and bottles. He showed four medicine cabinets in his Goldsmiths degree show in 1989 and two at the ICA a few months later. According to Iwona Blazwick, who curated the ICA exhibition, “The work was so out there, so left field. He has a curatorial sensibility—an impulse to collect people and things, then arrange them in space—and he was looking at the ready-made in a completely different way.” The best remembered series consists of 12 cabinets named after the songs on the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks” album. At Art Basel last June, Submission, one of the “Pistols” cabinets with an asking price of e1.8m, remained unsold. These works have never been easy sellers for the main reason that “they don’t look like art.”
Shortly after starting the medicine cabinets, Hirst started to fill the shelves with drinking glasses, sea shells, ceramic vessels, cigarette butts, medical instruments, then some time later, meticulously crafted painted pills and, this year, manufactured diamonds. The cabinet contents—as well as the increasingly high-end materials used to make the cabinets themselves—illustrate Hirst’s trajectory from sterile/scientific and dirty/punk to designer drugs and billionaire bling. Not surprisingly, the opiates and the zircons are the smash hits. Of Hirst’s top ten auction prices, five are shallow cabinets filled with “pills” or “diamonds”.
Wall-hung, eye-catching pill cabinets are a satisfying solution to the artistic obsessions of a sculptor who always wanted to be a painter and many collectors find them irresistible. Hirst made his first pill cabinet in 1999-2000. Called Standing Alone on the Precipice Overlooking the Arctic Wastelands of Pure Terror, the dazzling 30-foot-long mirrored piece was displayed to advantage in 2003 at that premier showcase for new wares, the Venice Biennale. While there are at least three in this monumental size (owned by Hirst himself, François Pinault and Lee Kun-Hee, the former chairman of Samsung electronics), there could be as many as 40 in the nine-foot range. Lullaby Spring, which held the record for the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist at auction for six months in 2007 and now hangs amongst the possessions of the Royal family of Qatar, is the superstar of the series. Apparently, Hirst’s studio is behind in filling orders for new cabinets in this vein.
The diamond cabinets debuted in the “Beautiful” sale. Fragments of Paradise, a six-foot-long stainless steel cabinet, and Memories of/Moments with You, a gold-plated pair of cabinets, were two of the nine lots bought by a single telephone bidder rumoured to be a Russian steel oligarch who has never bought contemporary art before. My best guess is Vassily Anisimov, whose daughter Anna has been described by the New York Times as “Manhattan’s first Russian It Girl”.
Hirst’s sharks are icons of predatory power in purgatory—the natural history equivalent of a Francis Bacon pope. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was commissioned by Charles Saatchi and promoted as the headliner of his 1992 Young British Artists 1 show, re-exhibited on the three-stop tour of “Sensation”, then shown again when Saatchi opened his gallery in County Hall in 2003. Few works enjoy such marketing, but the ad man was trialling a new business model and, in 2004, he sold the king carnivore through Larry Gagosian to hedge fund tycoon Steve Cohen for $8.3m. However, a spokesman for Mr Saatchi declared that The Physical Impossibility…had sold for a spin-doctored $12m and the false benchmark price hit the headlines. The deal seemed to attract a different sort of billionaire to Hirst’s work.
Shortly after, Hirst started making more sharks in formaldehyde and collectors who helicoptered out to his Gloucestershire studio were invited to inspect the carcasses in the cold room. The Wrath of God, 2005, a baby shark on a white rectangular plinth, was exhibited in Mexico City and acquired by Lee Kun-Hee for a reported $4m. Death Explained, 2007, a larger shark split between two tanks, was bought by Hirst’s friend and hunting buddy, Victor Pinchuk. (The Ukrainian oligarch owns over 25 works—probably a handful more after the “Beautiful” sale—and is planning a Hirst solo show for June.) Then there were two shark works in the Sotheby’s auction: a solo shark titled The Kingdom which sold on the phone for £9.6m and four bull sharks in two tanks called Theology, Philosophy, Medicine, Justice, which failed to sell in the room and were purchased after the auction by Zurich dealer Andrea Caratsch for £2.5m. Furthermore, a single work consisting of seven sharks titled Seven Deadly Sins is believed to be on order for the ultra-secretive Paris-based collector Philippe Niarchos. Although the series is evolving its variations, Sandy Heller, Cohen’s art advisor, says: “In my opinion, there is only one shark.”
Before we move on to mammals, it’s worth discussing Hirst’s fish, if only because they may be the artist’s sexiest representation of women. The link is most overt in works like Love Lost, which consists of an oversized fish tank containing a gynecologist’s office and live fresh water fish. (Adam Sender bought it for $800,000 in November 2005.) An interviewer once remarked to Hirst that there was surprisingly little overt sex in his work. To which the artist replied: “When I tried to deal with sex, it always turned into murder.” Indeed, this is an apt evocation of a longstanding lesser known series of some 20 skeleton sculptures that go by the name of “Adam and Eve” and it captures the Jack-the-Ripper quality of figurative works like the bronze Virgin Mother and the marble Anatomy of an Angel. Even sweet Charity is crippled and her collection box violated.
In 1991, the same year in which he made his original shark, Hirst did a series of sister works of fish in formaldehyde, which are amongst his most elegant “natures mortes”. Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding, for example, consists of six rows of individually encased fish in two cabinets and was once described as a “static ballet in an absurd movement toward nowhere.” The first formaldehyde work to be shown in London (in a group show at the Serpentine), it too was purchased by Saatchi, travelled with “Sensation”, and then was bought back by Hirst in a £6m-for-12-works deal in 2004.
Hirst continues to produce exquisite works of suspended fish. One of the most dignified pieces in the “Beautiful” sale was a cruciform stainless steel cabinet containing fish skeletons on one side and fish in formaldehyde on the other. However, the “Beautiful” sale also contained a near replica of the iconic Isolated Elements wall-piece titled Can’t Live With You, Can’t Live Without You. It had 12 shelves rather than six and the fish were smaller but, formally, it was the same work.
Hirst’s re-making of works with minor variations and Andrew Lloyd Webber-style titles seems to be satisfying short-term demand amongst a new cohort of collectors, but many suspect that this recycling will have a negative effect on his brand reputation in the long term. Art historian Gilda Williams suggests a Pop art parallel. “Warhol would make as many works as he could sell; there are hundreds of Brillo boxes and Flower paintings,” she explained. “Beginning in the late 1970s, he cannibalised his early work with the ‘Reversals’ of his own iconic images of Marilyn and Mao.”
Dead animals in toxic chemicals would normally be the very definition of a difficult lot. Before “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, Hirst’s top 100 auction prices contained only four formaldehyde works. After the sale, his top 40 contained nine. An astonishing feat.
Earlier this year, Hirst donated an exhibition copy of his classic “romantic conceptual” cow-and-calf work Mother and Child Divided to the Tate, whilst Anthony D’Offay accessioned one of the three 1994 sheep titled Away from the Flock. This is good news. Hirst sceptics often remark on the artist’s relative lack of museum validation. Although his retrospective at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples was well received, it is the artist’s only large-scale survey to date. Although Hirst believers tend to reply that he doesn’t need the public sector, it is worth noting that the market has no memory and even if well-stocked private collections are open to the public, they rarely bring the footfall or the scholarship—and hence the sense of consequence—of a major national museum.
Spots and more spots
Before Hirst submerged anything in formaldehyde, he painted spots directly on the walls of “Freeze”, the legendary 1988 exhibition that he organised in the second year of his Goldsmiths degree. It wasn’t until three years later that he started applying spots to canvases and titling the works after pharmaceutical drugs. Hirst painted the first five himself and then said, “Fuck this.” Now, 17 years later, there are probably about 1,000 spot paintings spread around the world. Apparently, they are particularly popular in Japan and Korea.
If you ask any of Hirst’s dealers how many spot paintings there are, the reply is invariably, “I don’t know.” But ask any museum curator researching a Hirst work and they’ll tell you, Damien has excellent records of everything. When I asked Frank Dunphy, Hirst’s business manager, who prides himself on his sure-fire mental arithmetic and memory for numbers, he replied, “Someone would have an estimate.” Whatever the case, many dealers say, “Quantity is not a problem.” As Harry Blain of Haunch of Venison explains, “If works are not traded enough, then there is no confidence in what they are worth. ‘Prolific’ can be good for an artist’s long term position in the market.”
Indeed, many conceptual artists (e.g. On Kawara) are exceedingly repetitious. As the curator Francesco Bonami explains: “Once you start repeating yourself, better to do so endlessly. One spot painting in a room is okay, but 20 spots is fantastic.” Art historian Julian Stallabrass resists this logic, declaring that the “only clever thing about [the spots] is their exploitation of the market…their value, the reason why Hirst is in a position to mount that exploitation, is entirely to do with his celebrity.” Hirst himself leaves it open. “Am I a sculptor who wants to be a painter,” he asks, “or a cynical artist who thinks painting is now reduced to nothing more than a logo?”
Although Hirst is now perceived as a “Sotheby’s artist,” it was Christie’s that first identified the spots’ easy auctionability. Back in May 1996, in the first successful sale of a Hirst at auction, Christie’s put Adrenochrome Semicarbazobe Sulfonate on the cover of their afternoon sale catalogue and displayed the work grandly behind a rope and against black velvet. The 5 x 6 foot painting sold for a respectable £32,200. Twelve years later, and the record price for a spot at auction is now £1.8m.
So, what differentiates one spot from the mass of others? Not much. The cognoscenti say that they would prefer to own one from the 1990s and, with the exception of Hirst’s many charity consignments, statistics on the website Artnet bear this out. Also, vibrant spots on standard rectangular canvases fare better than pastels and triangular canvases. Now that Hirst has introduced spots on red (at the Red charity auction last February) and gold backgrounds (for the “Beautiful” sale), perhaps we’ll see a hierarchy of background colours in 20 years’ time.
Life cycles: flies and butterflies
In the early nineties, Hirst exhibited two seminal works that led to a couple of painting series: A Thousand Years and In and Out of Love. First shown in July 1990, A Thousand Years is a glass box containing a cow’s head, flies, maggots, an electric insect killer, sugar and water. Tate curator Ann Gallagher sees it as “an extraordinary work—with an audacious choice of materials and a profundity that affected a lot of people.” It too was purchased by Saatchi and exhibited in “Sensation”. Hirst bought the work back from the collector-dealer as part of the 2004 package and, although it was exhibited by Gagosian Britannia Street in 2006, it remains in Hirst’s hands.
In 1997, Hirst made his first fly painting, Untitled Black Monochrome (Without Emotion)—Landscape, which was bought by Miuccia Prada from Bischofberger. However, Hirst had not perfected the technique of applying the flies with resin and the painting stank so much she couldn’t keep it in the house. So, it wasn’t until 2002 that he returned to making fly paintings, which are often named after diseases and negative feelings. Critics tend to celebrate the flies as the coolest newer development in Hirst’s oeuvre, likening them to Yves Klein blue sponge paintings and noting their wry contribution to the “death of painting”. Not surprisingly, they don’t command top dollar as non-connoisseurs tend to think they’re revolting.
The butterfly paintings, however, are another matter. Hirst’s first solo show was “In and Out of Love”, a breathtaking two-floor installation in which the artist appropriated a miracle of nature. Upstairs, pupae were attached to white paintings and butterflies hatched during the opening. Downstairs, whole dead butterflies were scattered upon colourful canvases. The latter were the first “butterfly paintings”. Hirst kept the upstairs work and sold the downstairs installation to a collector who sold the piece to Ivor Braka six years later for £50,000. Braka held onto the work for three weeks in 1997, then sold it to The Yale Center for British Art for £100,000. Today, dealers say it would be worth £10m. The Yale Center displayed it between 2002 and 2005.
With a convincing foundational story and compelling decorative effect, the butterfly paintings are popular and lucrative. “What is there not to like?” is the oft-repeated line. In 2003, as part of his “Romance in the Age of Uncertainty” show at White Cube, Hirst introduced the “butterfly wing paintings” which arrange the wings (with no butterfly body) into more structured compositions that evoke kaleidoscopes or stained glass windows. Now the auction record for a Hirst painting—£4.7m—is held by just such a wing work. Eternity, 2002-04, was bought in the room by Philippe Ségalot in October 2007. It had been consigned by the Mugrabi family of art dealers, major Hirst supporters who have been “hugely involved” in the artist’s market since the Pharmacy sale and have an inventory of almost 100 works.
For the past four years, Hirst has made frequent comments about his voluminous production: “I was in my studio recently looking at all the work in there and I thought, this is fucking insane. Who is this guy? Can’t you give it a rest; you don’t need to make so much stuff.” He has also repeatedly promised to bring many of the painting series to an end. In 2004, he said: “It is kind of getting out of hand. I am trying to end the series…I am going to stop the butterfly paintings, the spot paintings and the spin paintings…I think if you can stop, you can move on.” Making series would seem to have an addictive quality for Hirst, so much so that one wonders whether his studio went into overdrive at around the time that he became a non-smoking teetotaller. Anyway, in the lead up to the “Beautiful” sale, Hirst declared his intent to quit spins and butterflies (but not spots) on so many different TV channels that confidence in his integrity will be damaged if he continues to churn them out.
Beautiful inside his head?
The Sotheby’s straight-out-of-the-studio sale is a landmark event in the commoditization of art, which created enormous debate and unbelievable theatre. The marketing and PR were superb. Although some dealers complained that the estimates were 30% below gallery prices, the auction house clearly grew the market: it reported after the sale that 39% of the buyers across all three sales had never bought contemporary art before and 24% of the buyers were new to Sotheby’s. “Damien’s market is as solid as a rock,” said Alberto Mugrabi after the two-day extravaganza. “Picasso, Warhol, Hirst—these artists may go up and down, but they will never disappear.”
Just before the sale, Hirst told The Sunday Times something that could disturb his market irrevocably. “The first time you sell something is when it should cost the most,” he said. “I’ve definitely had the goal to make the primary market more expensive.” He then went on to liken his work to Prada shoes. Hold on there…Are not gorgeous shoes the very definition of lame art? At the very beginning of his career, Hirst said: “I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it.” But wayward statements like this suggest that he is really desperate to get caught.
Hirst has long been intimating that he is an agnostic when it comes to art. “Art is like God for every artist,” he has said. “In one way, as an artist, you have an equally suspect belief system as the church or any of the religions.” But whether Hirst believes in art or not, confidence in the potential of art to appreciate (rather than depreciate) is the linchpin of the trade in the work of living artists. Moreover, a balance of primary and secondary sales—and their relative prices—is essential to the vitality of an artist’s market. One of the reasons primary dealers sell below auction value is precisely to create the perception of fiscal appreciation.
Hirst has a mantra that he has said so many times that it may no longer have meaning for him. It’s a quote from his manager Frank Dunphy and it goes something like this: money should chase art. If art starts chasing money, the whole thing is fucked. “I get closer than most artists to that,” says Hirst. “Too close for comfort sometimes.” Implicit in the remark about primary versus secondary prices is an assumption that the artist alone is the person who creates value in art. But art accrues long-term value through a consensual, collective process, which involves curators, critics, dealers, collectors, art historians and auction houses. In other words, killing one’s secondary market to improve one’s primary sales is like cutting your nose off to spite your face.
Some like to celebrate Hirst as “the biggest dollar-earner in the history of art.” For those who believe in art as an intellectual endeavour, this is a peculiar accolade. Julian Stallabrass argues: “One does hope that he becomes the Bouguereau of his time. There have always been celebrity artists. Later, they tend to be examined in terms of cultural history without aesthetic recommendation.” Indeed, many artists think that the only innovative work of art in “Beautiful” was the sale itself. Others are so alienated by Hirst’s incessant talk of money that the line “He’s not making art, he’s making Hirsts” has virtually become a slogan. However, Elmgreen & Dragset, an artistic duo who have incorporated references to Hirst spot paintings in several of their own works, take a more generous view. “Hirst has made a lot of shit as well as a lot of fun, unpredictable stuff,” they say. “He has been the target of people’s anger because he is seen as a symptom of uncontrolled commerce, but maybe the art world needs a successful outcast to hate and admire. Hirst is like Johnny Depp in an art world that resembles ‘Pirates of The Caribbean’.”
Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World is published by Granta
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