A Talk With: Damien Hirst

  • Share
  • Read Later

Hirst with The Golden Calf. /© Damien Hirst — photos: PRUDENCE CUMMINGS

In London recently I spent three days visiting with Damien Hirst and the people he works with, first at the townhouse that serves as Hirst’s London offices, then at the studio/display space he has in Stroud, a town in rural Gloucestershire about two hours west of London. Like Takashi Murakami, Hirst has taken the idea of Warhol’s “factory” and run with it. So I also looked in on Hirst’s four sizable workshops, one in a London warehouse, the other three near Stroud, including two enormous facilities housed in converted airplane hangars. These are the places where scores of studio assistants — Hirst employs about 120 people altogether, though not all of them on the manufacturing end — produce his hundreds of spin paintings, spot paintings and butterfly paintings, as well as sculpture and works of all kinds in glass vitrines.

When I met him Hirst was busy preparing for the huge September 15-16 auction sale at Sotheby’s of new work from all those series. This sale will be something of a watershed in the world of art marketing — the first time an artist has sold a substantial amount of his work — 223 pieces in this case — directly through an auction house, bypassing his dealers. It’s a development galleries have been dreading for years.

This is a fairly long exchange, based on more than one conversation, so as usual I’ll split it into several pieces over the next few days.

LACAYO: How did you get the name Damien?

HIRST:  I was named after Father Damien, who got leprosy. Then unfortunately for me The Omen came out, so I was called Omen at school. 

LACAYO: When did you think you would actually become an artist?

HIRST: You’re always drawing when you’re a kid.  I just never stopped.  I’m with my kids now and they’re all artists.  But I grew up with quite an impoverished background, so I didn’t see any possibility that I would ever get paid for doing anything I enjoyed.  I never saw art as an option for a career. I thought about being an architect but it never really worked out.  Luckily I never stopped drawing.

LACAYO: But nobody really drifts into art school.  At some point it’s a decision you have to make.

HIRST: After leaving school I didn’t know what to do.  I had signed on for unemployment benefits.  Then I applied to St. Martin’s College in London and got rejected.  Then I applied to Cardif and got rejected there.  So I came down to London and got a job on a construction site as a laborer.  I did that for a couple of years.  After that I got a bit more focused. I knew I didn’t want to work in construction.  So I made a body of work that got me into Goldsmiths College at the University of London.

LACAYO:  What was the work that got you in?

HIRST: I made these little collages, like Kurt Schwitters. I was working with stuff you find on the streets.  They were sort of sculptural but I was painting on them as well. They were like sculpture and paintings. Some of them were three dimensional, some went on the walls.

Goldsmiths was the only school I could apply to where you didn’t have to choose between painting and sculpture. It was just called a Fine Arts course.   So I applied.  By then I knew where I wanted to go.  I had researched it.

LACAYO: So you were at Goldsmith’s in the mid-1980s?

HIRST: 1988 was my second year. 

LACAYO: At that point in the U.S. we were in the middle of post-Modernism and also that neo-Expressionist moment in painting.  Who did you admire as an artist in those days?

HIRST: Actually I would cite [the collector Charles] Saatchi as my biggest influence.  What really blew my mind and got me thinking big was his Boundary Road Gallery. It was just unbelievable. I had never seen a gallery of that scale. I just wanted to show there, immediately. When you look at [British Pop artists] Richard Hamilton or Peter Blake, they make art for small galleries. And then you’ve got Warhol doing these huge things. Britain was always small. Then Saatchi came and put things on a big American scale. So I just started making work like that.

I also worked in the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, hanging pictures three days a week, so I was handling a lot of great art. I was wrapping up Richters.  Seeing Kiefer coming into the gallery.  D’Offay handled Bruce Naumann, Carl Andre. I just wanted to show there. It gave you a respect for art. I remember when I bought my first roll of bubble wrap, I thought I’d made it. It was like forty quid. I got together with another friend of mine and we bought one roll together. 

LACAYO: It’s funny you should name gallery owners first as inspirations, because the first time you made your mark it wasn’t so much as an artist but as a kind of impressario, when you organized the Freeze Show in 1988 for you and some of your classmates from Goldsmiths. That was a show that circumvented the gallery system right from the start.  You just went and rented a warehouse and put up your art.  You didn’t wait to get “discovered”.

HIRST: A great phenomenon for me was Joe Strummer. [The late co-founder and lead singer of the Clash.] In 1977 I was like 12. I really wanted to be a punker. I was so into that when I was a kid.  Joe was a great hero of mine.  And he had a great line in one of his [later] songs about the future: “Just walk in like you own it”.  Just take what you want for yourself.