Damien Hirst is sitting in the art gallery he owns in London, pondering how he came to own 3000 works of art and what exactly he should do with them.
"I've got an addictive personality," he says. "I was making money, and I was aware that if I wasn't careful, I could be in the casino dumping it all out, so I was trying to pick healthy addictions. And buying art seemed like a good one. I had access to good things, and I'd get offered good things because of who I am."
Hirst with one of his works, Myth, 2010.Credit:Philip Sinden/Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019
Hirst's "good things" constitute probably the largest private art collection in Britain, after the Queen's. In 2015, in an act of considerable munificence, and at a cost of £25 million ($44.5 million), he opened the Newport Street Gallery, where he has since staged and co-curated a series of shows by artists such as Jeff Koons, Gavin Turk, John Hoyland and, recently, John Bellany and Alan Davie. Most of the work he's shown belongs to him.
"In the beginning that was my idea – I had so much shit in boxes I thought I should just get a space and put it there," he says. "But you can't own everything you show, and shows suffer if you're not careful. If I've got a show by an artist and I don't own one of his paintings, it's a bit mean not to get it on loan."
When we meet, Hirst, 54, a solidly built man of medium height with cropped, thinning grey hair, is wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, and sporting an array of jewellery – gold chains around his neck and diamond-and-gold rings on his fingers that look like knuckledusters. In another life you could almost imagine him riding on the back of a fairground dodgem car, pocketing change. He has a gruff charm, a coiled, kinetic energy and a palpable air of mischief about him. At one point he suddenly yanks his belt out of his jeans, snapping it in the air. For a moment I think he's going to whip me with it. "Sorry," he says, laughing. "My trousers are a bit tight."
We're sitting in the gallery's restaurant, Pharmacy 2 – named after the restaurant Hirst once co-owned in Notting Hill, which closed in 2003. A business failure then? Not quite. An auction of the contents, including everything from the artwork on the walls to the ashtrays, raised £11.1 million. In any conversation about Damien Hirst – the sharks, butterflies, spot paintings, hyper-exuberant showmanship – money is always mentioned. No artist has more invigorated the debate about what art is, and what it should be. ("Have they gone stark raving mad?" railed the bewildered Conservative politician Norman Tebbit in 1995 when Hirst was awarded the Turner Prize for his work Mother & Child, Divided, comprising four glass-walled tanks, containing the two halves of a cow and calf, each bisected and preserved in formaldehyde.)
Hirst's response to the perennial, "But is it art?" question has always been typically playful: "Of course it's art. It's in an art gallery."
No British artist has so quickened the pulse of the galleries and auction houses of the international art world. A few days earlier I'd joined Hirst at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where four of his works are on display until late September as part of the Yorkshire Sculpture International festival, with a further three on show in Leeds city centre and the Leeds Art Gallery. Perhaps the most striking of all is The Virgin Mother, a pregnant woman, based on Degas's Little Dancer, with half of her body stripped of skin, like an anatomical model, to reveal the flesh, veins and a child curled in the womb. It's a Brobdingnagian figure, 10.7 metres tall, looming over the rolling green landscape of the park, sheep grazing contentedly at its feet, making a nearby Henry Moore look like a miniature.
"Henry Less," Hirst jokes.
Hirst’s (in)famous shark in formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, commissioned by adman Charles Saatchi in 1992.Credit:AAP
Hirst grew up in Leeds, about 25 kilometres from the sculpture park, and to have his work exhibited on home territory, he says, is particularly gratifying. "Art affects people's lives, so having it out there and people coming to see it is great. I remember when I was growing up, there was a sculpture of a guy holding a barrel in the centre of Leeds. It was the first outdoor sculpture I'd ever seen. There were no mobile phones; we'd say, 'I'll meet you at two o'clock by the guy with a barrel.' The way that something like that can infiltrate our whole sense of a place and become part of the fabric of it, it's a very different thing to sticking a painting on a wall."
Home was a terraced house in Headingley. He never knew his father. His mother, Mary, remarried when Hirst was two, but divorced 10 years later. Mary, who worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau, "had aspirations", Hirst says, and the family moved to a semi-detached in Roundhay, "but I had to share a bedroom with my brother, so we went downhill in house size so my mum could go up in status". Roundhay was "a posher area, but it was actually worse, more violent". At 12, Hirst was drinking cider, sniffing glue and falling into petty crime. But there was always art.
"In art lessons at school we'd get paint and a piece of paper and I'd just squidge paint everywhere and put my fingers in it. And people would go, 'What's that?' And I'd say, 'It's modern art.' And we'd all laugh. So I was ridiculing contemporary art myself."
After art school in Leeds, and two years working on building sites in London, Hirst studied fine art at a top London art school, Goldsmiths. In 1988, he organised an exhibition, Freeze, in an abandoned warehouse in London's Docklands, showing his own work alongside that of fellow students, including Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume. Hirst's contribution was a sculpture assembled from brightly coloured cardboard boxes and two prototype spot paintings, painted directly on to the warehouse wall. Among the visitors to the show was millionaire advertising executive and major art collector Charles Saatchi, who subsequently offered to fund whatever art Hirst wanted to make, resulting in the first Young British Artists exhibition in 1992 at the Saatchi Gallery in north London. Hirst's work included the famous shark in formaldehyde – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – which Saatchi had commissioned for £50,000, and A Thousand Years, a glass chamber divided in two, containing flies hatching and feasting on a rotting cow's head, and then being killed by an Insect-O-Cutor.
Hirst once said that when he'd finished constructing that piece, he felt "maybe this is how Oppenheimer might have felt when he split the atom. Because these are living things. I was really worried when the first flies got killed by it. You could feel the pain in it. You think, 'Should I be doing this with art? Should I be going in this direction?' It was really quite weird. But it had a kind of beauty about it." He still thinks it's the greatest piece he's ever made. "I've always thought that's all there is – you live and then you die," he says. "A lot of that came from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan – the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. That's great, I think. I just loved it. He talks about society as being this quite dark thing, and talks about people as flies brushed off a wall. And I really got that."
Hirst has a phrase that pops up often when talking of his career, "strapping myself to the mast" – an allusion to the famous (and almost certainly spurious) story of the painter J.M.W. Turner, who was said to have tied himself to the mast of a ship in order to observe the effects of a storm – in Hirst's case the storm being the sudden, heady rush of discovery, approbation, wealth, success, excess …
He remembers the first time he sold a work for £10,000: a fish cabinet, to his friend, the artist and writer Danny Moynihan. "I was really shocked. 'Danny bought that, for that much?' It was a game changer. Then it was £1 million for Hymn. Frank Dunphy [Hirst's business manager at the time] told me, 'Saatchi wants to buy Hymn and I've told him it's £1 million.' Even the sound of it – a million pounds! – shocked me because I'd always thought I didn't give a f…, but then I thought, 'That's really a lot of money.' Then Frank said, 'He's offered me £950,000, and I've said no.' I said, 'Frank, you can't say no to £950,000; what are you doing? You could buy a street where I grew up for 50 grand.' And he said, 'It's the principle. You have to make the million-pound mark.' The whole thing just did my head in, and I really wobbled. I thought, 'Christ, something's wrong, it just doesn't make sense.' But Frank said to me, 'If two people have got a lot of money and they both want your thing, it's going to sell for a lot of money.' Oh yeah! It's that simple, really. He sold it for a million, and I just adapted to it. I never really felt a big number after that. I didn't give a f….
"And I think it's a class thing as well – I've got something that you rich, f…ing c…s haven't got, which is, I don't give a f…, I can do what I want, I'm not frightened of anything. I'm going to invent the future. I'm strapped to the mast."
An exhibition being installed at Sotheby’s, September 2018.Credit:Samir Hussein/Getty Images
Hirst's fertile mind and prolific output made him a prime beneficiary of the burgeoning global interest in contemporary art through the 1980s, '90s and noughties. Initially inspired by his admiration for the "infinite" paintings of the Japanese artist On Kawara, Hirst's series of spot paintings might not have been conceived as a licence to print money, but they became one. His studio has produced 1473 over the years. (Hirst says he's not sure how many of the original run he painted himself, but thinks it is around 30; the rest were produced by his assistants.) "I'd started these different, endless series [his spin paintings were another], so when the boom came I was in the perfect position, with the perfect product to just cash in on it. It was, sold this, sold that, everything was selling… It just happened. But I never went after the money; the money went after me. And there was so much of it."
Success, when it comes, says Hirst, is a double-edged sword – you don't have to worry about money and you can look after the people around you. "But it was difficult to navigate that when it first happened. "You have these quiet moments where you go, f…ing hell man, this is complicated – I don't know who I am. But then the people around you won't let you do that; they don't understand. I remember once, in a dark moment, saying to someone, 'It's hard being me.' And they just said: 'It's hard, being me,'" – he adopts a mocking tone. "Like it's a joke. You don't really get any sympathy or understanding, so you have to go it alone. And you lose a lot of people on the way. You're on that trajectory, so you either have to take people with you or lose them, and a lot of people won't go. And then you meet new friends, and before you know where you are they're all f…ing celebrities and you've lost your old friends. What's happening to you is beyond everyone's wildest dreams – your mum's proud of you, your friends are. You can't complain, but navigating it, especially with lots of alcohol and drugs, is difficult. You don't really know where you're going."
The artist Hirst most venerated as a student was Francis Bacon – he owns five Bacons. When he first came to London in the early '80s, he would see Bacon around Soho, but he was always too scared to approach him. Later, he became good friends with Bacon's closest confidant, John Edwards, who inherited Bacon's estate following the artist's death in 1992. They'd drink and do drugs together. Bacon's rackety life, lived between the French House pub and the Colony Room Club – an archetype of the inebriated genius – if not an inspiration, was certainly an affirmation. "When I saw Bacon was drinking, I had an affinity with it; I definitely thought, that's cool, I can get into that." And how. One might almost say that as his star rose, Hirst inherited Bacon's mantle as the art world's most celebrated – or perhaps notorious – inebriate. For years it was his drinks bill that virtually kept London's Groucho Club solvent.
"I remember at openings, sometimes I'd turn up in a suit, looking immaculate and amazing, and then the next time I'd be falling over drunk and covered in dirt from the street and be in a bit of a state. I remember early on seeing that these two extremes meant that people can't stop talking about you, and I thought that's a good thing, that was important, that you were often in the papers," he says. "When I came into it, conceptual art was ridiculed in the press, and I remember thinking that I want to make art that's robust enough that it's not going to get ridiculed. It's not going to get f…ed about with, whatever you do. I was totally aware there was a war with the press where you're going to do this and they're going to say that – this constant backwards and forwards of trying to make art that can survive in that environment."
Hirst stopped drinking and taking drugs in 2006. "I didn't do the whole AA thing," he says, "but it took me a lot longer to actually stop because of that." Does he miss it? "No, not now. I had 20 brilliant years. I never really had a desire to do anything except get absolutely out of my mind. I loved it, but it's too painful on the body. After a while, you just can't take it. I got to the point where I couldn't not get a hangover. And then, before you know where you are, it's taken five days to recover and you're feeling terrible if you're not drinking and it becomes a mess. But I don't regret it really."
He is very funny talking about his rackety days, fond reminiscences about fellow artists that he'd get blasted and legless with. "He'd do drugs with me" is a phrase that recurs so frequently in conversation, you wonder if there was anybody he didn't do drugs with. "Yeah, people who didn't do drugs." He laughs. "I was a monster. I'd say, 'F… off if you're not doing drugs – go home!' But you just totally switch, don't you? Go the other way." He pauses. "The idea now of meeting myself then is a nightmare." After years of drinking, he had to learn from scratch how to relate to people. "I hit the bottle at 12 … but when I got to be 42 and not drinking, I was like, 'F…, what's this?' People were saying, 'How are you?' and I was like, 'Er … what kind of question is that?' I went from booking a table at midday for the evening and just rounding up any 12 people and having a raucous meal, to having a one-on-one with one person. For two years. I couldn't tell jokes in public; I'd be frightened."
Some of the people from his drinking days remained his friends. A lot who seemed to be friends he can't remember at all. Relationships change. When he was drinking, the English writer Peter Ackroyd, whose name in those days was inseparable from the adjective "bibulous", was "right up my street", he says. "If ever I saw Peter, I was in love. I'd snog him, jump on his back; I'd tongue-kiss him, I was so excited to see him. And then when I was sober …
"I was in Naples at an opening and he came up to me and said, 'Damien, how are you, darling?' He was in my face, about two or three inches away. I was terrified, and then a tray of vol-au-vents came by and he grabbed one and kept talking and just spat vol-au-vents into my mouth and all over my lips, and I thought, this is disgusting, get me out of here." He roars with laughter.
A sculpture from Hirst’s successful Venice show, Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable, in 2017. Credit:Awakening/Getty Images
From the late '90s through the mid-noughties, Hirst became a barometer of the booming market in contemporary art, following the conventional business model of selling his new work through two commercial galleries, White Cube and Gagosian. At that time, there was an informal understanding between galleries and auction houses that the latter would not disrupt the market by bringing to auction any works less than five years old. But in 2008 Hirst dramatically broke the mould, side-stepping the galleries and sending 223 new works to auction through Sotheby's. The sale, which earned Hirst an estimated £95.7 million, occurred on September 15, the day American bank Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, signalling the beginning of the global financial crisis. "I made it over the top," Hirst now says. "[Sotheby's] wanted to do a mini auction, 12 works or something – I said, 'No, I want it to be massive.' It was too big and stupid. I was worried. It took over a year to arrange and the market was turning and changing. I had nightmares of 'Lot 57: No bids', 'Lot 58: No bids'. But it all went. It was really lucky." A day or two later, he admits, "We'd have been f…ed."
Says Oliver Barker, chairman of Sotheby's Europe, which orchestrated the 2008 sale, "What makes Damien so exciting is he's a complete rule breaker, and as an artist he's always been attuned to his own work in relationship to the commercial art world. The press came out saying that this was a fundamental change and maybe consigning galleries to the distant past. But they were actually slightly missing the point, because there were really no other artists one could do this with. You needed an artist who could be supported by a global collector base, as Damien is, to make it work.
"From a critical perspective, he had far more to lose than he did from a financial perspective. You don't go to auction like that, with something like a gallery exhibition, unless you're sure about the quality of the work. And the level of excitement from collectors and from the art world in general was incredibly positive."
At the time, the Sotheby's sale might have seemed like a final fanfare for the art market as a symbol of profligate consumption. But of course, it wasn't like that at all – for the art market, or for Hirst. While the sale might have marked the high-water mark for his prices at auction, it would be wrong to think his market stock has fallen. His exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable – a jaw-dropping collection of hundreds of statues and faux treasures, ostensibly raised from the ocean depths – shown at Venice in 2017, was roundly deprecated by critics, including the London Telegraph's Alastair Sooke, who called it "a spectacular, bloated folly … that may prove the shipwreck of Hirst's career". Yet the show, which cost a reported $US65 million ($92 million) to produce, generated $US330 million in sales.
"Picasso had bad reviews," Barker says. "Matisse had terrible press, but we don't think of that today. Damien, being who he is, is a lightning rod for criticism. Damien has flown so close to the wind, there are always going to be disparaging voices about him. But he's been pretty much ever-present for the best part of 30 years, which is extraordinary when you consider how taste changes and artists come and go."
I ask Hirst if he finds it depressing to be measured – as he so often is – not by the merits of his works, but by the prices they command, a stock rising, falling and rising again, like IBM or Pfizer. "I just don't think it matters. I don't make art for those reasons. I make it outside of that. I remember when I became the most expensive living artist [a pill cabinet, Lullaby Spring, sold at auction in 2007 for $US19.1 million] and a few weeks later it was Jeff Koons, then it was David Hockney and now it's Jeff Koons again. But they don't mean anything, those things; you think they do, but they're just a distraction from art." He pauses. "I still get more of a kick when I'm a crossword clue, or when you turn on the TV at 5pm and it's one of those weird game shows, and I'm a question. The first time that happened, I thought, 'I've really made it', because you get into the public consciousness in some way, which is much more exciting to me than money.
"The fear is, I guess, of being ignored. You want to be relevant, or make art that's relevant. But you're stabbing in the dark. It's just guesswork, and you don't know if what you're doing is relevant. But with more audience you've got more chance of being relevant."
If the Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition was the apotheosis of Hirst as the artist as showman, he now seems in the mood to temper that grandiosity. In recent times he has returned to painting – the aspect of his work that has in the past occasioned most uncertainty but also given him the most satisfaction. Last year he exhibited Veil Paintings in Los Angeles – a series of 24 vibrantly coloured pointillist-esque works, which he describes as "sunlight on flowers", all of which sold for reported prices ranging from $US400,000 for smaller works to $US1.6 million. He is now working on a new series of 85 blossom paintings – all in his own hand, as he points out – "Although I might rope in other people to give me a hand, to speed things up."
They're a long way from rotting cow's heads and pickled sharks – a reflection of a more serene and contented life, perhaps. He shrugs. "I suppose. I don't get depressed a lot. I like other people: I don't spend a lot of time on my own. I've had friends who, when they get a bit down and depressed, I find it a bit difficult: 'Come on, get yourself out of it …' I suppose it's a northern thing as well. But it's a bit alien to me to get in those situations. Life's too f… ing exciting. Look at my work, there's so much of it in so many different directions, I just return to that."
For 20 years, Hirst lived with the Californian designer Maia Norman. They separated in 2012, and for the past two years his girlfriend has been Sophie Cannell, a former ballet dancer. He has three sons with Norman – Connor, 23, Cassius, 19, and Cyrus, 14. He describes fatherhood as "mind-blowing". "I remember when Connor was 12, I thought, 'That's it, my job's over.' Because I thought he was grown up and independent, doing his own shoes up. A week later it was, 'Is it f…?' It's never ending."
Given his own childhood, has he been an indulgent father? He has a therapist now, he says, and he was talking about this just the other day. "I was telling her that when my kids were little, I'd take them to [toy store] Hamleys and say, 'What colour car do you want?' And they'd say, 'A red one.' And I'd buy them the red, the blue, the black and the green – I'd buy them all.
"My therapist said, 'When they say they only want one, they're probably telling the truth, because they didn't have the childhood you had. You'd look in the shop and you couldn't get the car you wanted – so you're not really buying them for the kids, you're buying them for yourself.' It was like, 'F… yeah, you're right!' And she said, 'Haven't you got a barn in Devon, filled with cars?' Yeah. 'And you don't drive?' No. She said, 'That's you feeding the child as well.'"
His stepfather was a car dealer who taught Hirst to drive sitting on his lap when he was young. "He always wanted me to drive, but because he was so pushy I think I rebelled and didn't."
Nowadays, he lets his friends drive his cars: "I get lots of ideas when I'm being driven." He has 10. "I've got five Audi R8s, a Lamborghini Gallardo, an E-Type, two Ferraris… no, three Ferraris …"
"I've got a VW Polo," I say. "Have you?" Hirst laughs. "Do you want to sell it?"
Edited version of a story that first appeared in The Telegraph Magazine, London.
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