Damien Hirst: The Post Script

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Damien Hirst /PAL HANSEN for TIME

I got into London over the weekend for a number of reasons. One of them was to see the Sotheby’s pre-sale exhibition of Hirst’s work at their auction showroom in Mayfair. The actual sale, which may or may not make Hirst infinitely richer than he already is, I plan to skip. I do what I can to talk about art but I don’t know what to say about shopping. But a few final observations about Hirst.

First — what should we think about the Sotheby’s auction itself, a sale of work directly from Hirst’s studio? How about this — it’s fine for Hirst to do whatever he pleases with his work, and to get for it as much as he can. I doubt it means the end of the world for galleries. Very few artists have the power and visibility to give their dealers the slip. Hirst — and maybe Koons, maybe Murakami — are among the few to have achieved escape velocity. Even if Hirst’s dealers, Larry Gagosian and Jay Jopling, stopped working with him tomorrow — not likely — he’s already so well known he could go on selling through other channels. But artists who operate at the lower altitudes of fame still need galleries to cultivate their careers, give them regular shows in decent exhibition spaces and place their work in the right collections.

To complicate the matter of course, the two-day sale may not live up to expectations anyway. It’s starting on the day that Lehmann Brothers have declared bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch is being sold to Bank of America. London markets this morning are in as much of a downturn as the Dow. Hirst’s collectors are international but so is the misery.

The more important question has to do with Hirst as an artist, not a salesman. As I said about him in last week’s issue of Time, in the end his career threatens to boil down to a kernel of genuine invention surrounded by a vast penumbra of middling merchandise. That’s how it looked at the Sotheby’s showrooms on Sunday, some good work surrounded by an asteroid belt of nothing in particular, an orbiting universe of inert material. As Hirst himself told me in July, Sotheby’s is not exactly an ideal place to show art. Despite a substantial re-fit of the showrooms to accomodate his work, there were still low ceilings and hasty wallboard in some places, bad light in others. Surprisingly, even The Golden Calf, the best thing I saw at Hirst’s studio a few weeks ago wasn’t placed to advantage. When I saw it in July the Calf‘s tank was raised on a 6-ft. high marble plinth. At Sotheby’s his tank rested on the floor. Sotheby’s had reinforced its floors to carry Hirst’s formaldehyde-filled tanks, but the second floor showrooms couldn’t support the additional weight of the plinth. I sympathize — it’s called the Richard Serra problem — but the gods must never be brought down to eye level.

And the paintings — the spots, the spins, the photo realist works he barely touches himself? They looked, as always, like small ideas stretched ever thinner and a cynical misuse of the world painting. Ironically, some of the least expensive lots in the Hirst sale will be drawings done by Hirst himself, large preparatory sketches for some of the preserved animal projects that have pre-sale estimates of $40,000 to $60,000.

So it was a relief to come across a new Hirst sculpture that consists of glass and steel tanks in a Greek-cross formation that rise to a height of about six feet or so. Each arm of the cross has five shelves. On one side of the cross those shelves hold 41 parchment colored fish of all kinds, each in its own clear formaldehyde tank. As you circle around the cross to the other side, 41 corresponding fish come into view, but this time as skeletons mounted on black pedestals. The title? Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. Clever boy.

Hirst said earlier this year he plans to end the butterfly and spin paintings, and tail off the spot paintings and animals in vitrines. If I never see another spin or butterfly painting, I’ll be fine. But I actually hope Hirst revisits the formaldehyde animals when he has a real idea. At heart Hirst is an 18th-century Englishman. He has the forthright vulgarity and the comic misanthropy we all love in writers like Fielding and Sterne, or in Hogarth, a spirit that mostly went underground in British painting in the 19th century, though it was kept alive sometimes by graphic artists like Cruikshank (Dickens’ illustrator), Tenniel (of the Alice books) and that great, obscene oddity-at-large Aubrey Beardsley. It came back in the 1960s with Hockney, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, and then with Gilbert and George. It was a spirit carried on by the Young British Artists that Hirst led into the world in the 90s. They even did some good with it, but eventually proved that even outrageousness can be an orthodoxy, just another line of sales talk.

But in July, at one of Hirst’s vast workshops near Stroud, a converted airplane hangar, I saw a huge work in progress he’s been fiddling with for a while, a glass tank triptych of real crucified cows. As a crucifixion triptych it’s another obvious homage to Francis Bacon, but it had what so much of Hirst’s work lately has lacked, a sense of real risk taking and a willingness to acknowledge feelings of anxiety and anguish without his usual ironic defense mechanisms. As everybody knows, Hirst’s persistent subject is death, which he treats in a combination serious/light hearted way. But he also flirts with banality — how else to describe those mass produced paintings? — and banality is a dangerous medium. If you’re not careful it infects your whole enterprise.

Hirst superintends his career in a funny way. He manages his finances very shrewdly. It’s his legacy he handles carelessly. With someone who dwells so much on death, you would expect it to be the other way around.