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Lacayo on Hirst: Precisely Right

September 21, 2008

Money can’t buy happiness and it can’t buy you good art either, sometimes. The results are in, and Damien Hirst is about $200 million richer after his Sotheby’s auction. My snipe aside, I really can’t talk about the new work by Hirst because I haven’t seen it in person, but the images that I have seen over the web I have not been impressed by. At all.

However, Time magazine’s art critic Richard Lacayo was able to see the new work and did have some thoughts on it. The Europe edition of the magazine featured Hirst on the cover and had feature article on him. Here are some of the online articles via Time: Cover article: Damien Hirst: Bad Boy Makes Good, A Talk With: Damien Hirst (Part One), (Part Two), (Part Three), Damien Hirst: The Money Store, Damien Hirst: The Postscript. Lacayo’s thoughtful writing is a highlight of Time, a magazine that seems otherwise disinterested in quality writing.

I think that Lacayo and I share similar concerns about Hirst’s work. We both agree there is something in his total output that we like, but both Lacayo and I share similar concerns about Hirst’s current production and his over-involvement with his market. Almost a year ago I wrote this for CulturalChicago.com regarding the Love of God debacle:

In the end, what we see with Hirst are astonishing amounts of money associated with him and his art which are often more impressive than the art work itself. Hirst has created some powerful work, but his recent foray has shown just how focused he is on fame, his reputation, his ego and his personal fortune at the expense of creating original art that warrants his reputation. . . Hirst would do well to spend less time on market manipulations and more time improving and refining his art.

And Lacayo writes:

in the end his career threatens to boil down to a kernel of genuine invention surrounded by a vast penumbra of middling merchandise. That’s how it looked at the Sotheby’s showrooms on Sunday, some good work surrounded by an asteroid belt of nothing in particular, an orbiting universe of inert material. . . Hirst said earlier this year he plans to end the butterfly and spin paintings, and tail off the spot paintings and animals in vitrines. If I never see another spin or butterfly painting, I’ll be fine. But I actually hope Hirst revisits the formaldehyde animals when he has a real idea. . . Hirst superintends his career in a funny way. He manages his finances very shrewdly. It’s his legacy he handles carelessly.

Going straight to the auction house indicates the wrong direction for this particular artist to go, in my mind, primarily because it avoids showing the artwork. The work does have a catalog, but does it have a proper display, as in length of time and place? According to Lacayo the work was displayed extremely poorly at Sotheby’s: bad lighting, bad physical space, even thwarting the centerpiece of the auction The Golden Calf (must. . . restrain. . . myself) by placing it on the floor rather than a marble plinth which seems integral to the whole. As for length of time, on the day of the auction (9/15/08) it had been on display for 11 days. A far cry from a usual month-long gallery show. And even if twenty thousand people did visit the showroom, it still seems like an attempt to slip one past the art world since no one really writes reviews of auctions and no one should. So this work avoids the critical spotlight, which in Hirst’s case feels almost like a tactical choice, since his recent shows haven’t been received well.

Another thought that Lacayo’s articles did raise in my mind is what exactly is Frank Dunphy’s (Hirst’s manager), role in all this? Why does it feel like every six months or so there’s a new Hirst headline grabber? Dunphy’s management style seems to be strong on showmanship, and getting attention, which is perfect for his previous clients of “acrobats, jugglers and ‘exotic’ dancers,” but art and artists have to deal with that pesky word and idea of quality (even if they are consciously working against it) and creativity. Artists may even need to take time off, to recharge or work on new ideas. Both Lacayo and I think this would be a good idea for Hirst.

At the risk of repeating myself again, Hirst’s much hyped move to the auction house is just that, hype. Once again, Hirst’s desire for fame and the front page has hurt the quality of the artwork, as Lacayo writes not much of it is very good. From the images online I have seen of the Sotheby’s lots, and his recent work from the last few years I have seen in person, I share Lacayo’s concerns about Hirst’s quality. Of course the alternative explanation for the decline in quality, if it is not the rush to the sales floor, is that Hirst has “lost it,” that is his artistic touch, an alternative I don’t prefer at all, even with my reservations about his output.

Oh, and I think Hirst’s prices are going to tank soon. Only new collectors would have paid the exorbitant prices for such sub-par work. Once again Jay Jopling, Hirst’s London dealer, was seen buying back work form an artist he represents. He was in the Sotheby’s bidding pool buying more of Hirst’s work to buffer the worth of his own inventory.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2008 2:23 pm

    Fascinating discussion you’ve kicked off. That’s a constant tension—the showman side vs. the actual work that one needs to do. Too bad that one often comes at the expense of the other, as may be happening in the case of Damien Hirst.

  2. November 14, 2008 12:57 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with your commentary on Hirst. He seems to be driven by a different set of standards from most artists. It is difficult, then, to truly appreciate his work because you are, in a sense, appreciating self-aggrandizement.

  3. boldizar permalink
    September 21, 2009 1:41 pm

    I interviewed Damien earlier this year in Bali, where he was finishing an intense three-month painting session. I expected him to have a bumper sticker on his laptop that said, “Suck my cock vomit.” Which he did. But I didn’t expect him to be extraordinarily down-to-earth, generous, and aware of his own position in a way that is caring rather than cynical.

    Despite his image (despite what I had thought and written before the interview) I was struck by how much he really does care about art. The conversation completely reversed my opinions.

    When you hear him talk about painting — the interview touches on everything from the suicide of his close friend to the essence of painting to five-foot wooden giraffes, with a detour on the nature of visual language using Vaseline and a cucumber — you get the sense of an exceptionally intelligent man who is trying to protect art from the art world (including himself.)

    If you’re interested, it’s republished at http://www.boldizar.com/blog/nonfiction/damien-hirst-new-paintings-interview/

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