Since he made his name in the early 90s, Damien Hirst has been less an artist than head of a multinational. In the process, he’s earned an absolute fortune, if not critical respect. But why should he care?
Damien Hirst stares into his portrait of a skull. This is the new Damien Hirst – Hirst the solitary painter rather than Hirst the art world’s flamboyant marketing magician. He has painted these pictures with his own hands, rather than employed minions to produce work under his name, as he has done in the past. But, he says, this is also the old Hirst. After all, like most artists, he started out painting rather than conceptualising and mass-producing. “I gave up painting by 16,” he says. “I secretly thought I would have been Rembrandt by then.”
I give him a look. But Rembrandt was a genius?
He shakes his head. “No, I don’t believe in genius. I believe in freedom. I think anyone can do it. Anyone can be like Rembrandt.”
Hirst is a master of the potty soundbite. I wait for a smile or wink, but it doesn’t come. Instead, he gets into his philosophical stride. “Picasso, Michelangelo, possibly, might be verging on genius, but I don’t think a painter like Rembrandt is a genius. It’s about freedom and guts. It’s about looking. It can be learned. That’s the great thing about art. Anybody can do it if you just believe. With practice, you can make great paintings.”
How far away does Hirst think he is from producing a Rembrandt? “A long way. But then again, there’s no need for that sort of thing today.” He’s got a touch of the Arthur Daleys about him – the chutzpah, the patter, the self-belief.
It’s mid-October and Hirst is giving me a guided tour of his upcoming exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London. Being Hirst, it’s bound to be controversial. For starters, he’s paid £250,000 of his own money to have his work hung here against the same striped blue silk wallpaper beloved by Marie Antoinette. What’s more, he’s pitting himself against the likes of Rembrandt and Titian hanging in neighbouring rooms. And then there are the paintings themselves. For two years, he has painted alone in his garden shed in Devon. He didn’t show them to anybody, didn’t think they were any cop, discarded them one by one, until he finally came up with some he liked. But as he leads me round the exhibition, I’m not quite sure how to react. He’s right when he says he’s a long way from Rembrandt. Perhaps a little further than he thinks. I say they’re spooky – it’s the best I can come up with by way of a compliment. At times, they seem more like illustrated CVs than paintings. All the traditional Hirst signifiers are there – skulls and sharks, dots and butterflies, crude nods to his hero Francis Bacon by way of spidery white lines, and the usual references to death and decay. There’s certainly no mistaking who these paintings are by.
Hirst has been battling with painting for years. He’s always wanted to do it, but could never quite face up to it or get down to it. “The spot paintings and spin paintings were trying to find mechanical ways to make paintings,” he says. “And I just got to a point where I thought I can’t avoid it any longer.” Technically, they might have been paintings, but he felt he wasn’t getting down and dirty with his oils and his soul, like a true artist should.
Damien Hirst remains the figurehead of Britart, the movement of British artists whose work was bought and championed by Charles Saatchi in the 90s. In 1992, he first came to prominence at a Young British Artists show at Saatchi’s old gallery on Boundary Road in St John’s Wood, London. The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Something Living, a shark in formaldehyde in a vitrine, became Britart’s signature image.
Hirst was the star of Saatchi’s Sensation show at the Royal Academy in 1997, an event that was more of a coronation than an exhibition for the new generation of British artists. Post-Sensation, Hirst and his contemporaries (the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, Marcus Harvey, et al) became the new punk establishment. Britart was bursting with enfants terribles, and Hirst seemed the most terrible of them all. It wasn’t simply the pickled cows and sharks; it was the swagger, the swearing, the rock’n’roll attitude. He even wore tinted glasses like Bono. He became as well known for his partying and his pill-popping as he did for his art. Then he discovered cocaine and became even louder. A night out for the Britpack was not really a night out until Hirst had taken down his trousers and waggled his willy in public.
The funny thing is, Hirst was never meant to be the poster boy for the movement. He had always thought of himself as the back-room boy – more an enabler than an artist. In 1988, while a student at Goldsmiths, he curated an exhibition of his contemporaries’ work called Freeze. Another irony is that the young Hirst had been rather conventional – not nearly as wild as he wanted to be. He was born into a working-class family and grew up in Leeds. His parents divorced when he was 12, and his mother, Mary, who worked for the Citizens Advice bureau, brought him up with a fierce sense of the right and proper. The true punk at his school was Marcus Harvey, who went on to create the scandal of Sensation with his portrait of the child killer Myra Hindley. Hirst adored Harvey, who was two years older. “I wanted to be like him. He was just mental. He wore a kilt and had a tiny blue Hitler moustache on his chest. I remember being incredibly jealous because my mum would cut up anything I went out in that was bad. She’d just say get back in the house. My mum made Never Mind The Bollocks into a plant pot – she put it on the gas, with a rock in the middle, and it just went whooosh! – because it said bollocks.” Today, she lives next door to Hirst and his family in Devon.
He was not an academic boy, only just squeezing into sixth form, where he did two A-levels and ended up with an E in art. He was initially refused entry to Leeds College of Art & Design, but eventually got a place. He was later turned down by St Martins, before studying at Goldsmiths. When he first moved to London, Hirst worked on a building site for two years.
He was 23 when he curated the Goldsmiths show. It featured some of his own work, but his cluster of painted boxes went pretty much unnoticed. In 1991, he got his first solo exhibition – In And Out Of Love featured rooms with live butterflies, hatching, flying and dying, with dead specimens stuck on canvases. From early on, his curating skills were evident in his work – the labelling, the titles, the layout, the display cabinets. To an extent, the presentation was the art.
In the late 90s, he became Britain’s own mini-Warhol, embracing celebrity, mass manufacture – and money. No British artist seemed so obsessed by the relationship between money, art and value. For Hirst, concept was all. If he’d had the idea (even if others claimed to have had it before, as they often did), that was enough. He loved the notion that he could attach his name to work he had not laid a finger on, claim it as his own and make millions. It was funny, ludicrous and hugely profitable.
Things reached their apotheosis (or nadir, depending on your perspective) in 2007, with For The Love Of God, a human skull, recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds, that cost an estimated £14m to produce. Again, Hirst’s timing was perfect, the symbolism acute – after two decades in which art had become the supreme commodity, money was now also the subject of art. There was nothing left to say. The work sold for an estimated $100m, although it later emerged that the consortium that had bought it included Hirst and his dealer’s gallery, White Cube.
Earlier this year, he ditched the gallery system altogether and sold a load of work at a massive Sotheby’s auction that raised a reported £111m. He seems to be trying to create a new business model for the art world. Hirst thinks it’s about time his dealer, Jay Jopling, was given a tougher ride by artists. “He always said I’ve got your best interests at heart, but he doesn’t really. It’s like he’s got a harem, and I’ve got to be monogamous, and you just go, ‘Fuck that’ after a while.” (Hirst has always liked his swear words.)
It was after the diamond skull that Hirst retreated to his shed. And it was after the auction that he realised paintings would be the next thing he exhibited. “The auction was definitely the end of something. A brutal change for me – go out with a bang.” He admits, reluctantly, that Britart is a product of Thatcherism, but insists he has no politics and says he has never voted in his life.
Hirst verges on the evangelical when it comes to money. He says that he has spent so long trying to make Sarah Lucas, his favourite contemporary British artist, appreciate the value of money and herself. To no avail. “She’d be like, ‘I don’t give a fuck, give me what you want’ and I’d be like, ‘You should sell your work for more’ and she’d say, ‘I don’t care. I’m not interested in all that shit.’ I was like Sarah in the beginning, but then I had to give a fuck at some point.” He comes to a frustrated stop. “I kind of admire her for it,” he adds wistfully.
He was jealous when he found out that Rachel Whiteread’s work was selling for £100,000 at a time when his was going for £20,000-£30,000. “I remember telling Jay to put my work up to £100,000. And he said to me, ‘But I can sell anything you make’ and it dawned on me: ‘It’s cos you’re selling it too fucking cheap.’ He said, ‘It’s going to alienate your collectors’ and I said, ‘I don’t care, just do it.’ We didn’t look back. When he sold something for £100,000, something changed – you get taken seriously by a whole new group of people and they start buying.”
Isn’t there a danger that the money becomes all-consuming; that the sole measure of a piece of art is what it sells for? “You just keep an eye on it. Selling out is very different from dealing with cash.” What is selling out? “My business manager always says you’ve got to make sure you’re using the cash to chase the art, not the art to chase the cash.” Hirst would argue that his diamond skull is an example of cash chasing the art.
Has he ever sold out? “I think I’ve got very close. There was a point I could have just churned out the spot and spin paintings for ever and laughed all the way to the bank.”
Was he taking the mick out of the art market? “No. You can take the piss out of art, but I don’t think you can take the piss out of the art market. All markets are serious.”
So why did he stop mass-producing? In the end, he says, he found it too depressing – it began reminding him of his own mortality. “With the work I was doing, I couldn’t see a route to the end of my life. I was doing these sculptures, and the people who work for me have always stayed the same. Then I thought, as I get older, they’re going to get older and fucking older… And then I’d be getting old and have to get young people working for me so they could lift the sculptures.”
Also, the paintings were no longer relevant to him. “The spot paintings were all about immortality. They’re just a total celebration of when you’re twatted, when you’re taking drugs, when you’re under the table. In that moment, you feel you can live for ever. Then you just get to the point where you think you’ve got less time in front of you than behind you.”
There’s a story about the spot paintings, possibly apocryphal, that I love – that Hirst started selling kits to make up the paintings for tens of thousands of pounds. In other words, he was charging people a fortune for painting them themselves. Hirst grins. Of course it’s true. It came about when a man said he’d like to buy a spot painting painted directly on to a wall and Hirst asked how he planned to do it. “He said, ‘Oh, just make me a certificate and give me some paint and tins. So I went through it in my head and worked it out – the certificate certified ownership of the artwork, the artwork must be painted by an authorised representative and the spots are these dimensions, these colours, and the spot painting can’t exist in two places at the same time. I bought my own tins, mixed the colours, put it all in a box, a brush for every tin, so you get 150 tins and 150 brushes, compass, pencil and a certificate.”
He must have thought that was funny? He shakes his head. “Every time I had a new idea, I realised it had been done years ago. Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, all the minimalists, they all had certified artworks.”
Hirst was recently estimated to be worth £200m. What does he do with all his money? Well, there’s his rapidly growing art collection, his many houses, his cars, his office. “I’ve got a lot of projects, and there’s lots for charity as well.” Hirst tells me which charities he supports, but he’s hardly gushing about it. I can’t help sensing he prefers the bad boy image and isn’t overly keen to destroy it with heartwarming tales of do-gooding. But a number of his friends tell me of the times he has helped out when they’ve been in trouble.
He’s more likely to tell you about the horrible things he’s done. His friends confirm this side to him, too. Although he doesn’t reckon he sold out, he did come close to destroying himself with drink and drugs, notably cocaine. He got clean only three years ago, and says for a long time he was insufferable. “The problem is, at the time I thought I was cool, but now I look back and think I was a twat.” Shortly before his great friend Joe Strummer died, the musician had had enough of him. “He was going, ‘Ignore him. Everybody ignore Damien. He’ll go away.’ I was just talking spew.”
He tells me about a recent conversation with a friend. “I said, ‘When I met you, I thought you were really cool’ and he went, ‘I thought you were a twat.’ I went, ‘What?!’ And he said, ‘I thought you were arrogant and stupid and pushy.’ Lots of people say that’s the impression I give off. I can’t quite work out what I do – maybe I just show off – but it always surprises me. I think we’re getting on like a house on fire. Maia [Norman, his partner] says it about her friends – they were intimidated by me or I was aggressive or arrogant or they don’t like me. ‘Who is that twat?’ ”
And when he was doing drink and drugs, he says, he was hideous. How? He can’t remember all the details, so he turns for help to Jude Tyrrell, director of Hirst’s company Science Ltd.
Tyrrell: “You were more in your face when you were on the booze and coke.”
Hirst: “Yeah, you wanted to give up a few times.”
Tyrrell: “No, only once.”
Hirst: “Was that the knob out in Dublin?”
Tyrrell: “No, the knob with the chicken bone was fine. It was that girl’s 18th birthday party. It was a posh boutique hotel and Damien was there, very drunk and abusive. It was just the kind of thing you don’t want to see. Had he continued as he was, I don’t think anybody could have stuck around. Also, he would have lost the art. He just wouldn’t have been able to do it. He’d be staying up for two or three nights, and I’d have BBC news arrive, and I know how much that costs, and I’d be sending them away because he’d just not turned up.”
Why does she think Hirst acted like this? “With everybody else, you think it’s because there’s shit in their lives. Damien I honestly think did it because he loves life – for purely hedonistic reasons.”
And the chicken bone? That’s an entirely different matter, says Hirst. “I went to a Malaysian restaurant and I had chicken, and I got a thigh bone from the chicken and kept it in my pocket and back at the hotel I put it in my foreskin, so I had a bone sticking out of the end of my cock.”
Tyrell reminds Hirst, aged 44, that he has missed an important detail: “You were in a bar when you were doing it, and this American woman took offence.”
Ah, yes, says Hirst, his memory clearing. “She stormed out in disgust, and next day she sued for $100,000. She claimed she’d been traumatised.”
That was the last time he exposed himself in public. “I became aware that, in a room full of people and at $100,000 each, it could become very costly. We settled for 8,000 Irish punts.”
How did Hirst manage to straighten himself out? “I just got sick of myself.” What did his partner, Maia, make of him throughout this period? “We were both battered.” She was as bad as him? “Yeah. If we hadn’t been, I don’t think we’d have stayed together.”
Hirst and Maia have three sons. The oldest, Connor, is 14, Cassius is nine and Cyrus four. Hirst worries that their lifestyle affected Connor badly. “He’s a bit quieter than the other two, and sometimes I think it’s because of that.”
We’re looking at some white roses on a blue-black background. This is one of his favourite paintings in the exhibition. How important is it to him that the show is well reviewed? “Jay [Jopling] always seems to want to get people to be pleased, but I always say I try to ignore the good press so then I can ignore the bad. If you like the good and try to ignore the bad, you can get fucked up. But you make it for yourself at the end of the day, and that’s who you’ve got to satisfy.”
A couple of weeks later, we meet up again at Hirst’s London offices, which double up as a beautiful, if unofficial, modern art gallery – a Jeff Koons silver sculpture on the ground floor, Warhol’s electric chair upstairs, Hirsts galore. He is wearing different blue-tinted specs (he has some 50 pairs), the customary hoodie and trainers, and is explaining why he wasn’t cut out to be a curator. “Dealing with the ego of artists is mental.” Who’s got the biggest ego among his British peers? “Er, me? You need a big ego to be an artist. I suppose you need a big ego to deal with the shit reviews I’ve been having for this show.”
The Wallace show has received a real mauling; I’ve rarely read such scathing reviews. The paintings are described as “embarrassing”, “shockingly bad”, “Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole”, and Hirst labelled “a jumped-up pretender”.
Did the reviews surprise him? “Well, I kind of expected them,” he says, “but I suppose secretly you do hope they won’t be as crap. The worst thing is, I’ve had phone calls from people who’ve treated it as a death – phoning up and asking, ‘Are you OK?'” He grins. “A couple of the reviews made me laugh. [Guardian critic] Adrian Searle said, ‘I failed at painting, too.’ I thought that was a cracking line. He rejected me at St Martins.”
Has it dented his confidence? “I’ve had all the confidence dented for two years in the studio, so I’ve looked at the work and gone through all the doubts and come out the other side. In a way, it was personal and quite aggressive. What got people’s backs up most was that I was doing it in the Wallace, in the context of these great artists. But it’s early days for me painting. I don’t think I’ve arrived. I don’t think I’m as great as they are. These are the first paintings I’m satisfied with… But the Wallace are well happy. The viewing figures are through the roof, sales in the shop are massive.”
Some critics have suggested that the exhibition is a joke, that he has deliberately produced bad paintings, knowing that they’ll still sell for huge sums. “Maybe it is… who knows? There’s an element of that in everything I do. Someone once said to me, ‘You could sign a dog shit and sell it’ and I said, ‘Why would I?’ And then you think, if you did, it would be art. Manzoni blew up a balloon and called it Artist’s Breath and sold it. And people go, ‘Are you taking the piss, or is it for real?'”
He says there’s nothing more boring than an artist wanting to be taken seriously, and it’s true there is a playfulness to most of Hirst’s work, but the bottom line is the paintings are for real; he does want them to be taken seriously. “I didn’t think, right, I’m going to make paintings now and I don’t give a fuck what they look like because we’re going to make loads of money. That’s not what they’re about. They’ve got to be good.”
Has he learned anything from the reviews? “No. I like what Warhol said: you don’t read them, you weigh them.” Perhaps he couldn’t win, he adds. “It’s the hallowed area of painting. The same guys who are saying to me these are shit are the guys who’ve said you’re crap because you can’t paint. So you paint and they say you’re crap now you’re trying to paint.”
That’s not strictly true. Many of those who were most damning about this show loved his earlier work, particularly the dissected cows and pickled sharks. The concept was so fresh, the lines so clean, the appearance so startling. I ask where he got the ideas from. “School. Even then I was doing that sort of stuff in art with frogs. And there were skulls and pine cones and bits of bone. It was like a nature table with things in formaldehyde. So we’d always draw from that.”
He talks about the inspiration for Mother And Child Divided. “It was about my mum and sister, who had fallen out at the time. It was a funny take on that.”
But this is all in the past, he says. The future, for him, is painting. He shows me the work that will form his next exhibition, Nothing Matters, opening later this month at the White Cube. There are more skulls and sharks and dots, but the colours are brighter – reds and greens. He’s also introduced a few new motifs: deckchairs, windows, splattered crows.
Does he think this show will get better reviews? “I think it’ll be another kicking,” he says. “It’s only a few weeks later and it’s similar stuff, so they’re just going to say, ‘He won’t go away!'”
And, he says, they’ll be right. “The paintings are going to get better and better and better, and they’re not going to go away. There’s no way back for me. I’ve just got to barrel on through. If you want to make it easy for yourself, you can say there’s a whole history of great artists who’ve been slagged off, so you can just embrace that, can’t you?”
Hirst tells me he watched a documentary about Francis Bacon the other night. “I loved the way he talked about the Popes. He said they were failed paintings. I loved that. He said he tried to combine the Eisenstein shot of the nanny screaming with the Velásquez painting, and it was a disaster. He said, ‘I don’t even know why I tried.’ I thought what a great thing to say – his greatest paintings, to talk them down like they’re shit. That way, no one can slag ‘em off.” He pauses. “I should have done that.”
But Hirst has never been one for regrets, and he chucks a final Warhol quote at me to prove the point. “Warhol said a brilliant thing. He said if anybody slags anything off, make more.”
• No Love Lost, Blue Paintings, by Damien Hirst, is showing at the Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London W1 until 24 January 2010. Nothing Matters is at the White Cube, London N1 from 25 November-30 January 2010.
Source: The Guardian