NEW YORK – It’s almost a cliché that an artist needs to die before he or she can be accorded the level of fame – and fortune – they richly deserved prior to their passing. Some lucky artists occasionally do burst through to the art world’s top tier while alive. David Hockney, Jeff Koons, Dale Chihuly, Jasper Johns and Gerhard Richter come instantly to mind. Someone else who certainly belongs to that exclusive club is Damien Hirst (b. 1965), the British artist, entrepreneur and art collector.
How rich and famous is Hirst? Consider this: In 2008 he made an unprecedented move for a living artist when he bypassed his longstanding galleries and sold an entire show – titled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever – at Sotheby’s. It worked – spectacularly so. The sale raised $198 million, breaking the record for a one-artist auction. In 2010, the Sunday Times Rich List named Hirst as the United Kingdom’s richest living artist, his wealth valued at $280 million.
Damien Hirst was born Damien Brennan in mid-1960s Bristol, England, and grew up in Leeds. He never knew his father, and was raised by his mother and stepfather, an auto mechanic. He was a rebellious youth, with art being the only subject in school that he liked. He attended two art colleges in England and went on to become one of the Young British Artists (or YBAs), a group that dominated the UK art scene in the 1990s. Death became a central theme in his work.
A natural born provocateur, Hirst became famous for a shocking series of artworks that featured dead animals, including a shark, a sheep and a cow, preserved in formaldehyde and displayed in large, clear display cases. Often, the animals were dissected. The best-known of these was The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (a tiger shark) and The Golden Calf (an animal with 18K gold horns and hooves, which sold at Sotheby’s for $13.39 million).
Naturally, many animal rights groups expressed outrage. But Hirst produced less controversial pieces, too, like his “spin paintings” (created on a spinning circular surface) and “spot paintings” (rows of randomly colored circles, made by Hirst’s many assistants). He’s also created medicine cabinet sculptures and pharmacological art such as Controlled Substances Key Painting, and Lullaby Spring (a steel cabinet with 6,136 pills that sold for $19.2 million to the Emir of Qatar).
Not all of Hirst’s artworks have been home runs. In a 2007 exhibition titled Beyond Belief, he unveiled a work titled For the Love of God – a human skull recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds weighing a total of 1,106.18 carats. The piece was modeled after an 18th- century human skull, but the only surviving part of the original was the teeth. Hirst’s asking price was a cool $100 million, but alas, there were no takers. The following year, it finally did sell – to a consortium that included Hirst himself, along with his celebrated gallery called White Cube.
“Hirst is popular because he’s taboo,” said Julie Garret VanDolen of J. Garrett Auctioneers in Dallas, Texas. “The more outlandish his work and behavior, the more interest he generates. The old adage ‘bad press is good press’ applies to Hirst. Take Neiman Marcus. Rumor was the over-the-top retailer would produce garbage bags to sell at holiday time for insane dollars. It was their schtick and they welcomed the controversy. Hirst does what he wants and doesn’t fear backlash or naysayers. It makes him a bad boy, and we all know how that goes. Picasso did the same.”
Monica Brown of the Chicago-based auction house Hindman called Hirst “the master of marketing,” adding, “Everything he does, from the banal to the ostentatious, makes headlines. He was very aptly a part of the Sensations show that launched so many YBA’s careers and since then he has thrown himself into the spotlight over and over again, most recently returning to painting himself and documenting it on Instagram. Speculators in the art market wonder: Could he be the next Warhol?”
Brown said each time Hirst unveils what she called “a new and incredible stunt, such as his Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable – the art market sits up and takes notice, “even if it’s just to cast a critical eye. In true ‘all press is good press’ style, there seems to be something irresistible about Hirst to buyers. The sheer price of his paintings create demand for his prints. And, like Warhol, one could argue that any good contemporary collection would not be complete without a Hirst.”
Garrett concurred that demand for Hirst’s work is “relatively strong, as abstract and midcentury art styles are so popular. Color is in demand, and designers are embracing pops of wild hues, and mixing old and new pieces in risky and fun ways. It’s going to become increasingly difficult to sell pieces that are environmentally controversial, but his other works will remain desirable.”
Garrett said signed pieces are going to be critical as the market becomes more saturated with workshop items and knockoffs. “We recently sold a piece from Hirst’s workshop, unsigned, as a total roll of the dice,” she recalled. “It sold because of the sheer chance it could have been a Hirst. The buyer confessed it simply intrigued him and he enjoyed the colors. It was fun; I think that is probably what fans of Hirst like the most – the unpredictability and the fun of it all.”
Art critics haven’t always been kind to Hirst. His 2009 exhibition of paintings titled No Love Lost, Blue Paintings was dismissed by one as “dull” and “amateurish.” The year before, in a Channel 4 documentary titled The Mona Lisa Curse, art critic Robert Hughes called Hirst’s work “tacky” and “absurd.” Still, he’s been lauded for the way he’s galvanized interest in the arts – raising the profile of British art and helping to create the image of “Cool Britannia.” In the 1990s British Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley praised him as “a pioneer of the British art movement,” while England’s sheep farmers ironically were pleased that he’d raised interest in British lamb.