Lives of the Artists
By Calvin Tomkins
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2008 Calvin Tomkins
All rights reserved.
It took Damien Hirst less than five years to become the most famous living British artist. As early as 1992, The Independent ran a cartoon of Prime Minister John Major submerged horizontally in a glass tank, with an onlooker exclaiming, "Oh, God! It's disintegrating!" The reference, as the paper's readers were expected to know, was to the twenty-seven-year-old Hirst's tiger shark in formaldehyde, a real-life art work acquired the previous year by the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi. In London, Hirst is as well known as the rock stars he hangs out with, but fame has not yet singed him with its dragon breath. Now thirty-four, he is an open, friendly, humorous, quick-witted, dirty-minded, hard-drinking, and immensely likeable Yorkshireman whose tough, working-class features look as though they could turn belligerent at some point but never do.
Unlike most of the other young British artists of his generation (or YBAs, as the tabloids call them), Hirst has produced a fairly diverse body of work. In addition to the shark piece, whose formal title is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Somebody Living, he makes several different kinds of paintings on canvas: spot paintings, in which all the spots are the same size but each is a different color; spin paintings, made by dripping pigments on a canvas mounted on a turntable; and butterfly paintings, made by laying exotically colored (dead) butterflies on wet canvases painted a single, all-over bright hue. These works are intensely decorative and often quite beautiful, an effect that Hirst tries to neutralize with the titles he assigns them — names of pharmaceutical narcotics or stimulants in the case of the spot paintings, and, for the spin jobs, titles like Beautiful, handsome, tasteless, thoughtless, amazing, spinning, cyclone good-in-bed painting (1995), or Beautiful, kiss my fucking ass painting (1996).
Sculpture is what propelled Hirst to fame, however, and his three-dimensional forms often suggest a mating of Minimal art and Grand Guignol. In the 1970s, some formalist critics used to complain that Minimal art, by inviting the viewer to create a scenario from simple, machine-made sculptural forms, was too theatrical. The "theater" of Donald Judd or Dan Flavin, however, with its spare metal boxes or fluorescent-light tubes, looks pretty tame next to Damien Hirst's A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a rotting cow's head, live maggots that hatch into flies, and an Insect-O-Cutor to zap the flies, or his 1992 She Wanted to Find the Most Perfect Form of Flying, a large steel-and-glass enclosure whose walls and floor are drenched with what looks like blood and whose contents include a spotless white lab coat on a hanger, a blood-spattered chair, and a three-legged table on which, amid some bloody debris, a live goldfish swims serenely in a round bowl. The scenario here is up to you, of course, but Hirst has suggested that it deals with sexuality, which "always turns into murder for some reason."
Actually, sex and violence do not figure prominently in Hirst's oeuvre. His main sculptural fixation over the last decade has been with death — or, rather, with the impossibility of death in the mind of someone who, like Hirst himself, is infatuated with life. "Death is an unacceptable idea," Hirst has said, "so the only way to deal with it is to be detached or amused." His medicine cabinets — works in which surgical instruments or prescription drugs are neatly aligned on the shelves of ordinary glass-fronted cabinets — can be seen as supercool metaphors for the human body and its losing struggle against disease and decay. (They also refer, according to Hirst, to "the fact that people believe in medicine but don't believe in art, without questioning either.") His shark in formaldehyde, which at first glance looks alive and very deadly; his cow and calf, chainsawed in half vertically, the halves presented side by side in adjoining glass cases (Mother and Child Divided); his pristine white lamb (whole) floating in formaldehyde so that its hooves don't quite touch the bottom of the tank (Away from the Flock) — these images, which could have been merely shocking, or morbid, or sentimental, or disgusting, manage somehow, maybe because of the distancing effect of their minimalist steel-and-glass containers, to engage our attention on other levels, not excluding the visceral, populist level that Hirst himself often has in mind. "A lot of people think art's weird and stupid," he told me. "I want to get to those people, get them to come in and go 'Arrrgh!'" Whether or not his work is merely sensational, as some critics maintain — providing shock for the sake of shock — his sculptures are hard to forget, and the best of them are carried off, like Andy Warhol's iconic works, with the panache of a master showman. And, anyway, Hirst wants to know, "What the hell's wrong with sensational?"
ONE EVENING LAST JUNE, Hirst said to me, "I think art has always been interested in extreme things. Death is frightening. If you don't think about it, then it's going to get the better of you. I'm just trying to say, 'Look, how about this?'"
We were sitting in the kitchen of Hirst's three-hundred-year-old farmhouse, in Devon, at the time, finishing a very good dinner cooked by Hirst (whom nobody can be around for ten minutes without calling Damien), after a two-hour train trip from London followed by a forty-five-minute taxi ride from the station. Connor, Damien's four-year-old son, was playing happily and a bit noisily on his father's lap. Maia Norman, Damien's companion and Connor's mother, would arrive around midnight: She was driving one of their Range Rovers down from London, where they had spent the last few days. It had, as usual, been a hectic interlude. Damien had put in some time at his business office, conferring with his associates, Hugh Allan and Jude Tyrrell, about current projects and activities. These included Milly, a millennium fireworks rocket engineered and designed by Damien, to be manufactured by a Chinese firm and sold in department stores for £29 apiece; Beagle 2, the British space probe, which was planning to use a small Damien Hirst spot painting as a "test card" for instrumental calibrations during the European Space Agency's mission to Mars, in 2003; and a television documentary on the history of meat, for which Damien had been asked to be the narrator.
Of more immediate concern was a lunch for two hundred invited guests to celebrate the first anniversary of Pharmacy, the Notting Hill restaurant whose concept and décor were by Hirst. Damien had also checked on the progress of his ten assistants at two London studios, and he had done a great deal of convivial drinking and snooker-playing at the Groucho Club, the popular Soho hangout for media, entertainment, and art world luminaries, where the sort of drunken antics that Damien and his mates fancy are not only tolerated but tacitly encouraged.
Damien, on his last night in town, had arranged a dinner party at Pharmacy for Matta, the eighty-seven-year-old Surrealist painter, whom he had just met the previous evening. Damien had not gone to bed at all that night but had moved on from Pharmacy to the Groucho and several other drinking clubs with Maia and Mary Brennan, his mother, who lives in a cottage adjoining their Devon house and helps look after Connor, and who doesn't at all mind staying up late when she comes to London. After dropping Mary and Maia off around three A.M., at a houseboat on the Thames which is now their London living quarters, Damien had continued on his own, God knows where. By the time he showed up for the anniversary lunch at Pharmacy, around two the next afternoon, he looked pretty wasted — unshaved, clothes rumpled, eyes half shut. He had a few drinks, sambucas and Ricard pastis. (Damien likes to mix things up, alcoholically.) He wasn't being coherent, but this didn't interfere with the carnival of affection that surrounded him the minute he arrived — friends and near friends coming over to hug him, friends' children pulling on his arm and spilling his drink, rock musicians shouting at him across the big, bright room, whose high-style décor includes several butterfly paintings, a large plastic sculpture representing an atomic structure, colorful wallpaper reproducing pharmaceutical compounds from a drug encyclopedia, and, on the stairs, dangling human skeletons and four huge pharmacist's jars filled with colored liquids. During the next three hours, as Damien continued to order, spill, and consume various alcoholic beverages, I was surprised to note that he became progressively more alert and articulate. We were scheduled to catch a six o'clock train to Devon from Paddington Station. Long after I had given up hope that this might happen, at about five forty-five, Damien rounded up Connor and Mary Brennan, went outside in the rain, found a taxi, and got us all to Paddington with three minutes to spare. As he walked to the train platform, carrying an exhausted Connor on his shoulders and holding his nice, cheery mum by the hand, he looked like the sort of family man you could really depend on.
DAMIEN HIRST NEVER knew his own father. Growing up in the working-class town of Leeds, in the north of England, he got on well enough with his stepfather, a car salesman named Hirst, who had married his mother when Damien was a year old, but the marriage collapsed after twelve years and two more children, and Damien's mother (who reverted to her maiden name) concedes that by then she had lost control of Damien — "which says more about him than about me," she adds. He had a few brushes with the police as a youngster, "a little stealing, minor stuff," according to Hugh Allan, who also grew up in Leeds. "We were raised on punk music and punk culture. Damien played guitar in a band, and my brother played bass."
After getting out of school, Damien hung around for a year or so, not knowing what to do with himself, until it occurred to him to go to art school. He had always liked to draw. He took the foundation course at Jacob Kramer College, an art school in Leeds. After that, he applied to two professional art schools — St. Martin's, in London, and Cardiff College, in Wales — and was turned down by both of them. At loose ends again, he got a doctor friend to let him sit in on his anatomy course at the morgue; Damien did life drawings of the corpses. "That's when I got interested in things being more real," he said. There is a horrendous snapshot of a grinning Damien in the morgue, cheek to cheek with the severed head of an elderly cadaver. In 1983, when he was eighteen, he moved to London, where he got a construction job. He painted in his spare time — turgid, heavily impastoed canvases in the Abstract Expressionist manner — until curiosity nudged him into collage. "There was an old guy named Mr. Barnes, who lived in the building next to mine and collected junk," Damien told me. "After not seeing him for a while, a friend of mine and I got worried about him, so we went in through the back of the building. Upstairs, we found two rooms with about sixty years of this guy's life in there — magazines, pajamas, two hundred empty toothpaste tubes, an incredible amount of worthless stuff." Mr. Barnes never came back. The building manager was throwing everything out, so Damien began moving it into his flat. "That's what I made all my early collages out of — his stuff," he recalled. "I kind of turned into him."
Damien's mother told him he'd never get into a professional art school if he just "stuck rubbish on boards," but in 1985 his collages got him accepted at Goldsmiths' College, which turned out to be the perfect place. Goldsmiths', in southeast London, was anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, and anti-hierarchical. There were no departmental divisions, and no formal teaching as such. Each student was assigned a studio and a tutor, and periodically there was a seminar where everyone's work was criticized by fellow students and several tutors. Michael Craig-Martin, an Irish-born, American-raised artist who began teaching there in 1973, believes that Goldsmiths' emergence in the last decade as the main incubator of new British art stems in part from the profound social changes brought about in England by Margaret Thatcher. As Craig-Martin sees it, "England as a society is almost unrecognizable today, compared to twenty years ago. There used to be a sense of vulgarity about seeking success or money overtly — the English preferred to lose gracefully than to win vulgarly. But today they're as aggressive and outspoken and vulgar as they were in the eighteenth century, and Damien is part of that."
Although Craig-Martin was not one of Damien Hirst's tutors at Goldsmiths', he noticed Damien soon enough. "I remember going to an opening at Anthony d'Offay's gallery and finding that the person who served me champagne was Damien," he said. "He'd got himself a part-time stockroom job there, which was really unusual — a first-year student going right to the top place." At the end of his second year at Goldsmiths', Damien took the lead in putting together the exhibition that would largely define his own generation of artists. Year-end shows by students at the college were annual events, but this was something new. Visiting his girlfriend in the Docklands area south of the Thames, Hirst had noticed an abandoned warehouse, found out who owned it, got permission to occupy the premises for a month that summer, and wangled a loan from the London Docklands Development Corporation. Hirst and his fellow students spent several weeks cleaning the place, which was ankle deep in pigeon droppings. The show was a group effort, but Damien chose the sixteen artists — first-, second-, and third-year students, and a few who had already graduated — raised the money for a catalogue, and got Ian Jeffrey, the head of the Goldsmiths' art history department, to write the catalogue essay. "The whole thing," according to Craig-Martin, "was a perfect mirror image of a professional exhibition."
"Freeze," as they decided to call it (as in "freeze-frame"), opened on August 6, 1988, and word spread quickly through the London art community that something was up. Hirst got Norman Rosenthal, the Royal Academy's director of exhibitions, to see the show by picking him up in a taxi and taking him there. The work on view in that huge, empty space did not reflect any common style, nor did the students seem to be breaking new ground aesthetically; several of the more striking pieces, in fact, clearly showed the influence of the American artists who the year before had exhibited in "New York Art Now," at the Saatchi Gallery, on Boundary Road. What struck most viewers, though, was the brash, all-out, try-anything ambition and energy of the Goldsmiths' students, the sense of youthful high spirits and bursting confidence. There were a lot of paintings in the show, and some conceptual pieces made from throwaway materials, and a couple of real shockers, like Mat Collishaw's photographic light box showing an enlarged close-up of a bullet wound in a man's skull. Among the weaker works, it was generally agreed, were Damien Hirst's collages.
At this point, a number of people assumed that Hirst was going to become an art dealer or a museum curator rather than an artist. He had a sharp eye, obviously, and a terrific talent for promoting other people's work. Rachel Whiteread, a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art, who wasn't in the "Freeze" show, remembered with amazement how Damien used to bring Norman Rosenthal and other art world power brokers to her studio to see the work she'd done. (Whiteread would soon win renown comparable to Hirst's for her ghostlike casts of common domestic objects such as chairs, bathtubs, a living room, and eventually a whole house in East London.) She had met Damien in a pub three years before the "Freeze" show, and they had liked each other on sight. "I told him how cheeky and arrogant he was," she recalled, "because he was trying to take over the world even then — and he hadn't made anything!" Damien did want to take over the world, but he was serious about being an artist. "Freeze" continued, with two extensions, through September 29, and new artists and new work were added each time. For the third version, Damien invented his first spot paintings. He did them directly on one wall — uniform colored circles lined up in a grid pattern. The spot paintings would become Hirst's logo, the antidote to his death-and-decay pieces; since no two spots were exactly the same color, the paintings were free of harmony, color balance, or any other aesthetic devices, and they all seemed to project a happy, eye-catching glow, like advertisements. "They are what they are," as Hirst once said. "Perfectly dumb paintings which feel absolutely right." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins. Copyright © 2008 Calvin Tomkins. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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