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

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Over the summer the Sotheby's sale — which has one of those wonderfully daft Hirst titles, "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever" — got the kind of presale treatment that Boeing and Airbus give the rollout of a new jetliner. In August a selection of the material was shipped for viewing to the Hamptons, the weekend retreat for New York millionaires. It also went to New Delhi, to wink at India's increasingly powerful collectors. In June Hirst flew to Kiev to attend a Paul McCartney concert and a party hosted by Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian steel billionaire who owns seven Hirsts and a private art museum. A month later the artist gave a private tour of some of the Sotheby's work to Daria Zhukova, a young, London-based art impresario. Her boyfriend is Roman Abramovich, the Russian owner of Chelsea Football Club, who this year alone was widely presumed to be the buyer of a $33.6 million Lucian Freud that set an auction record for the work of a living artist, and an $86.3 million Francis Bacon that set a record for postwar art.

The global sales campaign may be a good idea. In August, the Art Newspaper reported that Hirst's London gallery White Cube had a backlog of over 200 of his unsold works, worth more than $185 million. If the story is correct — the gallery says it's not, but hasn't detailed how many Hirsts it has on hand — it would mean that Hirst has run into that age-old problem of factory production: excess inventory. A few weeks ago Bloomberg.com quoted Robert Sandelson, a London gallerist who has dealt in Hirst, about the "pressure" that overproduction has placed on the market for spot and spin paintings. According to Bloomberg, one of those, Hydrocodone, sold at Christie's in London last year for $818,000, but resold this year at Sotheby's in New York for only $589,000.

This may be another reason, apart from the impulse to explore new avenues, why Hirst has decided to throttle back production of the spin and butterfly paintings. The Sotheby's sale is also a canny way of getting his name out to new buyers. "There's our global reach," says Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby's European chairman of contemporary art. "We're everywhere, and we act as a magnet for all the new people coming into the market." And a lot of those people might be more comfortable in an auction house — where anyone with cash can flex their muscles — than in top galleries, where dealers sometimes try to place works only with important collectors who might lend or give them to major museums. It's all part of any dealer's service to the artist's long-term reputation, but it can have the effect of discouraging less prominent customers. This is how Hirst sees it too. "I hate the way when you walk into a gallery and say you want to buy a Damien Hirst they say: 'Who are you?' I much prefer to be in a shop where you can just go in and buy it."

Meanwhile, the future of Hirst's market is also affected by the so far inconclusive fate of his most highly publicized project, a diamond-encrusted skull he unveiled last year called For the Love of God. As a trope for human folly and cupidity, a glittering death's head is as tired as it gets. Hirst's twist, such as it was, was to have the thing manufactured at a stratospheric level of crass luxury — a platinum skull layered with 8,601 diamonds — then to offer the poisoned apple to the world's billionaires for $100 million. At that price level it would not only be the most expensive work by a living artist, but a punch line to Hirst's conceptualist joke about the madness of the overheated art market. Just like The Golden Calf, the diamond skull would go into the world to prove its own argument about false values.

Or at least that was how it was supposed to work. About a year ago Hirst announced that the skull had fetched the full $100 million price. But the purchasers turned out to be a still unidentified consortium of investors that include Dunphy, Jopling and Hirst. Dunphy says the three of them maintain a "controlling interest in the work" — meaning they sold the biggest stake to themselves. Eventually, he insists, they will resell it, after it has toured a few museums. A planned exhibition at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg fell through — Dunphy says he and the museum couldn't agree on security costs — but the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam will be showing it for six weeks starting in November. "By the way," Dunphy insists, "the price of it now would be double."

Dunphy is routinely described as a father figure to Hirst. When Hirst is in London they regularly breakfast together, with Hirst always doing a little sketch of Dunphy at the table. The Irishman talks disapprovingly of Hirst's old party habits, and you sense that he played a role in Hirst's decision a few years ago to give up drugs and booze. "When I was drinking I thought I was working at half power," Hirst says. "But when I stopped I realized 
 I had been working on, like, 10%."

Hirst also seems to have a second father figure — the painter Francis Bacon, who died in 1992. Hirst says Bacon's bleak, tumultuous work made an impression on him early: "It was like album-cover art. It was gory, high impact. When you're young you love that kind of stuff. But then I started painting, and everything I was painting was kind of shit Bacons, really bad copies. So I gave up."

All the same, Hirst found early on an equivalent in his own work for Bacon's key motif: tortured figures writhing within a bright, clinical space. Hirst's meticulous glass tanks have some of the same feel about them, sanitary enclosures for something menacing (that shark), visceral (a bisected calf) or even putrid (that cow's head). In recent years Hirst has also begun to absorb Bacon's actual imagery into his tanks of formaldehyde. Two years ago he showed a work derived from one of the anguished triptychs Bacon made after the suicide of his lover George Dyer — with slaughtered sheep substituted for Dyer. Hirst has been buying Bacons as well, five of them so far, including a self-portrait he picked up last November for $33 million.

For the last couple of years Hirst has also been painting again — actually painting, as in the kind of pictures an artist produces with his own hand, not through assistants — and always with a sense of Bacon looking over his shoulder. If he continues to go this route it's a big risk. He's given no evidence up to now that he knows what to do with a brush, and there are plenty of people waiting for him to fall on his face.

So far he hasn't exhibited any of these pictures, but I saw transparencies of some of them in London — figurative work in a dark Bacon-ish key. He's still finding out what kind of painter he is. He's even begun to think of his mass-produced paintings as a means he used to avoid becoming a painter of another kind. "The spot paintings, the spin paintings," he says, "they're all a mechanical way to avoid the actual guy in a room, myself, with a blank canvas."

Meanwhile, though he might not know it, Hirst has already produced his self-portrait. It's The Golden Calf, a king of the artworld hill, worshipped for being golden, and burdened by it too. Maybe after it's sold and gone Hirst really will be able to move on to another stage of his career.

Going once. Going twice.

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