I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now. So went the title of one of the works in Damien Hirst’s first solo exhibition in London, 30 years ago. Hardly one of his celebrated pieces – not an animal in formaldehyde, a spot painting or a medicine cabinet, but a minimal glass sculpture with a floating ping-pong ball – its title was a kind of manifesto. Hirst had an intense desire to connect, to be in our faces, to seek success and ubiquity. He achieved it quickly and has remained among the most famous artists in the world. But what about now? Where’s Hirst at in 2021?
He has been busy. Next week, when London galleries open for the first time in four months, Hirst’s year-long takeover of the Gagosian gallery’s space in King’s Cross, begins, with his photorealist Fact paintings and related sculptures. Works from his series Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable will be shown among the historic masterpieces in Rome’s Galleria Borghese in May. His blobby pink and white Cherry Blossom paintings, which he’s finished in lockdown, will be shown at Paris’s Fondation Cartier in June. And last month, he announced that he’s entering the exploding market for non fungible tokens or NFTs, with The Currency Project –10,000 works made using oil on paper that are tied to NFTs.
Hirst crashing this latest crypto craze was inevitable. When Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, sold an NFT artwork for $69.3m at Christie’s last month – far surpassing Hirst’s auction record – Hirst told the online crypto magazine Cointelegraph that Beeple is “a f***ing great artist and why not on a par with any of the great artists of history?” He added: “I love it when something comes along that makes the small minded art world get its knickers in a twist.”
But exactly whose knickers are in a twist? Most critics are offering little more than a shrug as they watch the NFT bubble inflate. Many art world insiders and art lovers don’t know – and perhaps don’t much care – WTF an NFT is. Perhaps Hirst is seeing worries in the traditional art market, which is arguably threatened if tech-billionaire dollars coveted by galleries and auction houses head straight into the crypto markets. Circumventing accustomed market routes is something Hirst knows a lot about, after all. In 2008 he ignored Larry Gagosian’s various galleries and his London dealer Jay Jopling’s White Cube, and went straight to Sotheby’s with a body of new work, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. The sale, of 223 works including The Golden Calf, an 18 month-old British Charolais bull preserved in formaldehyde and wearing a large solid gold disc between its 18 carat gold horns, made £111m, in the same week that Lehman Brothers collapsed, kicking off the financial crash - though it was reported at the time that Hirst’s prices were propped up at the auction by Jopling and Gagosian.
Hirst’s NFT Currency Project will be launched on a new NFT platform Palm, which has backing from crypto royalty, including Joseph Lubin, co-founder of the Ethereum blockchain. The project is “firstly about art and people,” Hirst told The Art Newspaper, but it “touches on the idea of art as a currency and a store of wealth”. I think back to 1991, to the young Hirst taking the art world by storm, how art seemed a matter of life and death for him. And I wonder how he came to be making work about art as a financial asset.
But then Hirst, as Melanie Gerlis, an art market columnist at The Art Newspaper and Financial Times says, “is a real brand”. Though his market suffered, particularly after the Sotheby’s sale, and prices plunged at auction, Gagosian now gets requests from collectors every day, it says.“Damien has collectors that have been buying his work for 25 years and continue to do so,” says Millicent Wilner, a Gagosian director. “But all across the globe, people are excited by his work and interested to see what he’s doing.” Gerlis says that the market for his work in Asia in particular is growing.
Gerlis’s theory is that Hirst offers a balance of edginess and familiarity: “it’s quite easy to understand the conceptual-ness of Damien Hirst”. She sees him as part of a band of other “insider-outsider” art-market darlings like Beeple and Banksy. “The artists who are super in-vogue at the moment are all those that are rebellious-ish.”
Of course, the whiff of filthy lucre hovered around Hirst’s art from the start of his stratospheric rise, when Charles Saatchi infamously commissioned his tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, for £50,000 in 1991. Then, though, it seemed a means to an end. It’s difficult now to conjure the impact of his early exhibitions like the cluster of works he showed in the first Young British Artist show at Saatchi’s much lamented Boundary Road gallery in March 1992. As well as the the shark, he showed A Thousand Years, a piece he’d made in 1990, featuring a rotting cows head, flies and an Insect-O-Cutor. Hirst’s hero Francis Bacon, whose painted space frames influenced Hirst’s use of glass cases, saw it just before he died in 1992 and wrote to a friend that “it really works”. Lucian Freud told Hirst: “You started with the final act, my dear.”
And while Freud was surely being mischievous, Hirst’s 2012 Tate Modern retrospective revealed that he never matched the visceral thrill of those first few, prolific years – the early vitrines and animals in formaldehyde, the first spot, spin and butterfly paintings, the medicine cabinets and Pharmacy installation. In the 25 years since, there have been some alarming depths – his hand-painted Bacon-influenced paintings of 2009 to 2012 an unforgettable nadir. All of which makes Hirst’s year-long takeover of the King’s Cross branch of Gagosian intriguing. Wilner, who has worked with Hirst at Gagosian for years, describes the programme as a “collaborative, very organic process”. There are no dates yet announced beyond the opening Fact paintings and sculpture show from next Monday and Wilner won’t let on what future shows might contain.
The Fact series, begun in the mid-2000s, is a curious start. Though linked to Hirst’s perennial obsessions – medical and surgical imagery, butterflies – they were a clear departure. Photorealist paintings made primarily by Hirst’s assistants, they’re based on personal photographs and found images – from the birth of his son to an anti-drugs advert documenting a woman’s descent into meth addiction. He sees them as a play on reality, truth and fakeness. Shown first in New York in 2005, they sold out but met with a critical drubbing. None was in the Tate retrospective.
Some canvases from that time are in the Gagosian show, alongside new paintings, like Notre-Dame on Fire (2019). Until now, Hirst has not shown Fact sculptures – “I’ve never heard that terminology before”, Wilner says – but the Gagosian show features various works which resemble found objects but are “Damien’s re-creation of reality”, she adds. So the “Covid station” with sanitiser and masks for visitors in the entrance is actually a sculpture called Remedies Against the Great Infection (2020). Meanwhile, a large group of works started in 2006 but completed last year brings together jewellery cabinets based on those at the jeweller Bentley and Skinner (who made Hirst’s diamond skull in 2007) with apparently full rubbish bags and green bins. Their titles including F***ng Entitled C*** and Deluded Rich Wanker.
Speaking of which, Hirst’s old patron Charles Saatchi said in 2004 that when art books are written in 2105: “Every artist other than Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and Damien Hirst will be a footnote.” But unlike Warhol and Judd, not to mention Marina AbramoviÄ, David Hammons and Kara Walker, none of the dozens of artists I’ve interviewed has mentioned Hirst as an influence. He can have all the collectors in the world, but it’s ultimately through dwelling in the minds of other artists rather than adorning opulent walls that Hirst will be propelled into the future. Sure, when he described Beeple as a great artist, the NFT millionaire responded on Twitter: “holy f***kkkk… insanely honored sir, wowowow”. If NFT art is the brave new world its creators and supporters believe it is rather than a soon-to-implode crypto cult, then Saatchi might be right. But, for now, Hirst’s legacy looks rather shaky.
Damien Hirst: Fact Paintings and Fact Sculptures is at Gagosian Britannia Street from April 12