Damien Hirst and the art of the deal

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Damien Hirst and the art of the deal
Portraits of the artist Damien Hirst in London, Dec. 13, 2021. He might be Britain’s richest artist, but with each attempt to monetize his talent, Hirst’s originality as a conceptual sculptor becomes an ever more distant memory. Kalpesh Lathigra/The New York Times.

by Scott Reyburn

LONDON.- “He’s a talented artist, but this? Really?” said Alan Baldwin, an art collector, looking down recently at a fluffy black sculpture of a spider with bow legs and googly eyes. Back in 1992, three years before winning the prestigious Turner Prize, its creator had astounded the art world by displaying a real 14-foot tiger shark embalmed in a tank of formaldehyde.

“Damien’s having a laugh,” added Baldwin. “He’s wasting his talent.”

Baldwin and his wife, Antonietta Quattrone, didn’t think much of Damien Hirst’s pre-Christmas exhibition of 16 “Pipe Cleaner Animals.” Billed by the artist as “big and fun and playful” and on display in the new ArtSpace gallery at Claridge’s hotel in central London, some cost up to $350,000.

But they were much more enthused when they collected the purchase that had brought them there: “You ain’t there to hide,” number 720 from the 10,000 unique watermarked, microdotted and hologrammed spot paintings that Hirst’s assistants had made for “The Currency,” the artist’s latest experiment in messing with the art market’s notions of price and value.

Each image in the series was sold for the modest price of $2,000, but buyers had to choose between taking a physical painting or an NFT that can be traded on cryptocurrency platforms. Baldwin and Quattrone were among just 5% of buyers who had opted for a painting, Hirst’s manager, Joe Hage, said in December.

“We just wanted to have an original piece,” said Quattrone. “Our grandsons understand NFTs, but we don’t.”

The “Pipe Cleaner Animals” and “The Currency” were just two of more than 10 exhibitions and projects that the hyperproductive Hirst and his assistants created last year. This year has kicked off with “Forgiving and Forgetting,” Hirst’s first New York exhibition since 2018, running at Gagosian’s West 24th Street showroom through Feb. 26. Although Hirst might be Britain’s wealthiest artist, at 56 he is no longer the force he was in the market.

In 2008, his works raised $268 million at auctions; in 2021, his auction sales had shrunk to $24 million, according to the Artprice database. A new generation of wealthy collectors and speculators is more interested in buying works by younger emerging names. And with each attempt to monetize his artistic talent — whether through paintings, prints or NFTs — Hirst’s originality as a conceptual sculptor becomes an ever more distant memory.

On a recent December afternoon, a mile east of Claridge’s, Hirst was in his cavernous studio in a former parking garage, surrounded by big abstract canvases in various stages of completion. Two new “Reverence Paintings,” in which veils of gold flecks float ethereally over a white pointillist ground, were ready to be packed up for the forthcoming Gagosian show. That exhibition also includes marble sculptures from Hirst’s grandiose mock-archeological “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable” project, first unveiled during the 2017 Venice Biennale.

“My whole career can be seen as a history of painting. I loved Goya, Bacon. I adored Soutine. I just wanted to be a painter,” Hirst said in an interview, wearing paint-splattered overalls. “I was always a bit frightened by it all, worried about my ability, my talent.”

Hirst instead found fame and made most of his fortune by encasing flies, sharks, farm animals, cigarette butts and medicines in vitrines. The trademark spot and spin paintings he produced in the 1990s and early 2000s were made by teams of studio assistants.

But for the past 15 years, Hirst has been doggedly painting on his own. After what he and most critics agreed was a false start trying to paint figuratively in the manner of his hero Francis Bacon, Hirst returned to the neo-pointillist abstraction he first explored as a student at Goldsmiths college in London in the late 1980s.

Sequestered in his studio during coronavirus lockdowns, Hirst used this painting technique to make 107 riotously colored canvases of flowering cherry blossom trees. A selection of 29 of these was exhibited at the Fondation Cartier in Paris last year. (The show moves on to the National Art Center in Tokyo in March.) Reviews were mixed. Jonathan Jones, an art critic at The Guardian, who regards Hirst as a great sculptor but a “lousy” painter, dismissed the exhibition as “another pumped-up lockdown antidote.” It nonetheless drew 170,000 visitors over a six-month run.

The “Cherry Blossoms” have also proved to be one of Hirst’s bestselling lines. According to Hage, Hirst retained some of the “Cherry Blossom” paintings for his personal collection, but all 80 or so works brought to market were sold before the Fondation Cartier show opened, for between $750,000 and $3.5 million each, by Gagosian and White Cube, the artist’s dealerships and by Hirst’s own company Science Ltd.

“We could have sold many, many more,” gallerist Larry Gagosian said by phone. “People were literally begging to buy these paintings.”

Gagosian recalled thinking that Hirst was “an extraordinarily original and innovative artist from the get-go, right after I saw the shark,” adding that Hirst was also “a very smart businessman, as Warhol was.”

Andy Warhol, in his book “From A to B and Back Again,” famously pronounced that “business” was the best art. He also identified “business art” as the “step that comes after art.”

Hirst joining in the mania for NFTs was certainly smart business. He produced “The Currency” project with HENI, an art services business founded by Hage. They grossed about $18 million from the initial sale, and, according to Hage, are collecting a further 5% of the proceeds from NFT resales.

“I’ve got about 2,000 people online constantly talking about ‘The Currency.’ Hirst said. “It’s trading all the time: It goes up and down, it’s got value one minute and not the next.”

“It’s like being in a cult, and I’m the cult leader,” he added.

But Hirst’s lucrative fascination with flower paintings and financial value systems has turned him into a very different artist from the provocateur who in 1990 mesmerized the art world with “A Thousand Years,” a vitrine filled with breeding flies being zapped above a severed calf’s head.

Ivor Braka, a London-based private collector and dealer, acquired Hirst’s mordant motorized formaldehyde piece, “This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed at Home,” at Hirst’s first Gagosian show, in 1996, for about $150,000. Not long afterward, he sold the sculpture to Charles Saatchi, who included it and “A Thousand Years” in the landmark 1997 “Sensation” exhibition in London that introduced Hirst to a wider audience.

“Damien was one of the most radical artists of postwar Britain, both as a sculptor and as a thinker,” Braka said. But Hirst’s subsequent strategy of “making the maximum amount of money in the shortest time was not the greatest decision,” he added.

Under the guidance of a previous manager, accountant Frank Dunphy, Hirst became a global brand. He negotiated huge cuts from his galleries, collaborated with his dealer White Cube in 2007 to put a diamond-encrusted skull on the market for close to $100 million and then bypassed the gallery system altogether the following year by selling 223 works in a $200 million Sotheby’s auction, just at the moment when the global financial system was about to crash.

That $100 million skull, called “For the Love of God,” was Hirst’s ultimate test of whether artistic and financial value could be the same thing. It now languishes in storage in Hatton Garden, London’s jewelry district, Hirst said, owned by him, White Cube and undisclosed investors.

Hirst added that he still feels frustration about the way potential buyers had shied from an artwork made from platinum and diamonds, when they were happy to pay millions for canvases smeared with pigments. “Everyone buys into the fact that paintings cost nothing to make but can sell for an infinite amount. Why can they believe in that, but not the other?” he said.

But what projects like “For the Love of God,” “The Currency,” and even a $200 million Sotheby’s auction have shown is that Hirst, while striving to emulate his student heroes as a painter, is also still, at least in his mind, a conceptual artist. It’s just that he’s now thinking conceptually about money, instead of animals and death. As critic Hal Foster pointed out in the immediate aftermath of that watershed 2008 auction, the market has replaced formaldehyde as Hirst’s medium.

Julian Stallabrass, an art history lecturer at the Courtauld Institute in London and author of the 1999 book, “High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art,” has followed Hirst throughout his career. He said he saw an important distinction between Warhol and Hirst as “business” artists. “The odd thing about Hirst is that at some level he believes the shtick about life, death, love and great art,” said Stallabrass.

“He is the perfect meritocratic neoliberal artist, for whom there is no contradiction between being all about the money and holding to traditional notions of genius,” Stallabrass added.

Where the lasting value in all this lies will be history’s guess.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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