Damien Hirst: Bad Boy Makes Good

Thanks to an unprecedented auction, British artist Damien Hirst is about to have the biggest payday in art history

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Photograph by Pal Hansen for TIME

For more than a decade Damien Hirst has been one of the richest and most famous artists in the world. All the same, when you sit down with him, he still seems surprised by it. "I grew up with quite an impoverished background," he says. "I didn't see any possibility that I would ever get paid for doing anything 
 I enjoyed." Hirst tells me this one rainy afternoon in July at one of his many studios. This one is in Stroud, a rural town in Gloucestershire, about two hours' drive west of London. When he says this I think immediately about the bull in the next room, which I'm pretty sure he enjoyed coming up with, and very sure he's about to be paid for. A lot, actually.

The bull is called The Golden Calf and it's headed to market at Sotheby's in London, where it will be the star of a much hyped two-day sale of 223 works by Hirst that begins on Sept. 15. This will be the first time any auction house has sold a quantity of work fresh out of an artist's studio. As auction prices for contemporary art have rocketed ever higher, galleries have been dreading this very possibility: that a famous artist would bypass his dealers — who usually get a cut of roughly half of a work's sale price — and make straight for the auction houses. (The auctioneer's fee is paid by the buyer on top of the sale price, which means Hirst will walk away with pretty much every dollar his work gets hammered down for.) If it meets expectations, the sale could put about $120 million into Hirst's already well-lined pockets, a payday unlike anything any living artist has seen. And The Golden Calf will be the prime lot, with a presale estimate of $14.6 million to $22 million. Sometimes a bull is truly a cash cow.

And also a very witty performance. The Golden Calf is a white bullock preserved in a tank of formaldehyde that's mounted on a high marble plinth. His hooves and horns are 18-carat gold. His head is crowned by a gold Egyptian solar disk. Seen head-on, he's a false idol whose headgear is simultaneously silly and mesmerizing. (Hirst is assuming his buyers know the Bible story about worshipping a false god, just like the one they are about to worship.) But the beast is best seen in profile, the view that leaves you to reconcile as best you can his hieratic gravity with the laugh-out-loud abundance of his genitals. When Hirst is good, he's good, and The Golden Calf is a nimble concoction, designed to all at once beguile, flatter and parody the big-swinging billionaires who are likely to bid on it.

And when Hirst is not good? He's still a cash cow. Over the past two decades, with work of very fluctuating quality, Hirst has assembled a net worth that the Sunday Times of London estimated earlier this year at $364 million. The money has bought him a farm in Devon where he lives with his companion Maia Norman and their three sons; a Gothic Revival mansion that he plans to convert into a private museum; and a house in Mexico where the family relocates for three months a year so Maia, who's Californian, can surf. When he's in London for a few days each week he takes a suite at Claridge's, the last word in posh hotels. For a boy raised in what was then the threadbare industrial city of Leeds, it's nice. Or as Hirst puts it: "I like having the doormen say: 'Welcome home, sir.'"

The money also pays for his small army of studio assistants. Hirst employs 120 people at six locations in England, including two massive facilities in Gloucestershire housed in converted World War II airplane hangars. Not all of his people work on the manufacturing end, but scores of assistants execute his product-lines-on-canvas, which are hugely profitable but for the most part aesthetically negligible. Those include hundreds of "spot paintings," each a multicolored grid of little circles and named after a pharmaceutical product; "spin paintings" made by pouring paint onto a whirling disk; and "butterfly paintings" made by embedding dead butterflies in pigment and resin, sometimes in elaborate stained-glass-window formations, sometimes just attached here and there on the canvas. At Sotheby's the spin paintings are expected to fetch as much as $720,000 each, the spots as much as $1.2 million.

Hirst's gift, when it's with him, is for black comedy, William Hogarth meets Stanley Kubrick — work that's part deadpan joke, part dead serious utterance about mortality and decay. The piece that first made him famous, an open-jawed shark in a tank of formaldehyde titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, offered a giant beast of prey as a belligerent correlative for a universally suppressed anxiety. A Thousand Years is a large glass box in which real maggots hatch into flies that appear to feed on blood (actually red sugar water) from a severed cow's head, then are killed by an electric bug zapper — the tragic cycle of life and death played as low farce by the lowest orders. And there's something both hilarious and chilling about his Lullaby series, steel and mirror-glass medicine cabinets in which colorful pills are meticulously organized into glittering reliquaries.

But Hirst's career always threatens to amount to a core of genuine invention surrounded by a vast penumbra of middling merchandise. In all likelihood the huge Sotheby's sale will be another milestone in his financial victory march. But it may also be a terminus, a house-cleaning by a man overtaken by his own success. Hirst has been thinking out loud lately about finding some new directions. For one thing, he says he's going to quit doing the spin and butterfly paintings, and slow down the production of animals in vitrines. He's said this before, but this time he seems to mean it. In June he turned 43 — an age, he says, when "you start thinking you're going to need something else. Something more personal and quieter and darker."

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