A Brand Called Damien Hirst

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

Behind an elegant door on a posh street in London, Damien Hirst, one of the world's greatest artists, sits surrounded by treasures: an Andy Warhol "Electric Chair" is propped on a shelf; a major Francis Bacon hangs over the room's mantel; a piece by Jeff Koons sits nearby. That's as it should be--Hirst is filthy rich and those are his heroes--but what comes as a surprise is all that you expect him to do that he doesn't: he doesn't whip out his "willy"; he doesn't fart or swear (the F word slips out four times, but in Leeds, where he's from, a vicar would curse more); he doesn't head-butt me, not even once. Yes, Hirst is dressed all in black and has skull rings on his fingers, but in London that's the uniform of record producers and restaurateurs. The lout the British tabloids once followed so closely--the "yob" that Hirst says he made sure to be--seems to have disappeared.

"I haven't had a drink for five years, and I feel great," Hirst says, comparing that with his wild days in the '90s. "And a lot of the things where I thought I was feeling great, I look back and I think I was crazy, and pretty volatile." Hirst now sits demurely in his London business office, speaking with poise and insight. (His home and family are in faraway Devon; his studios, with a staff of almost 200, are scattered across southern England.)

Pop Life: " 'Enfant terrible'--I get called that a lot, still, and I'm 47," Hirst complains. He has three sons, who are 16, 11, and 6, and he's been with their mother since 1991. Aside from some gray hairs, there aren't many signs of advancing middle age--except, maybe, that Hirst has agreed to something his younger self had always refused: a full retrospective, launching April 4 at London's venerable Tate gallery. "Screw that, I'd never show at the Tate," he says he once insisted to no less a pal than David Bowie. "That's for dead artists."

One of those has found a second coming in Hirst. More and more, Hirst's thriving pop presence and giant market share have left him looking like the single greatest heir to Andy Warhol--and to Warhol's pioneering collapse of art and artist and price tag into a single "social sculpture," in the words of the American writer Jack Bankowsky. In 2009, Bankowsky helped put together a Tate show called "Pop Life," in which he argued that, already in the 1960s, Warhol had made the leap from standard pop art, whose pictures simply showed us our commodified culture, to a new kind of art that combined marketing and buying and selling into part of the artwork itself. On those terms, Warhol's a tyro compared with Hirst--and Hirst is now at the top of his game.

This could sound absurd, since today's Hirsts are mostly riffs on objects he came up with two decades ago. By 1992, he'd already floated his famous shark and sheep in formaldehyde, begun his infinite series of spot and spin paintings, and launched into his butterfly collages. Last year, when Hans Ulrich Obrist, codirector of the Serpentine Gallery in London, was asked to select a work for an anthology of the greatest art of the last quarter century, he chose Hirst's "A Thousand Years," from way back in 1990. It's a glass enclosure with a box full of maggots that hatch into flies, feed on a bloody cow's head, and finally get killed by a bug zapper, and many people name it as the artist's first masterpiece, and maybe his greatest.

Hirst, Inc.: The thing about such early Hirsts, however, is that they still stand as single works of art in the grand tradition of such things: they were precious objects meant to impress--not much different, in basic function, from any old-master painting or sculpture. They could hardly count as rethinking the nature of art, since they were dedicated to some of the same "timeless" themes as many establishment pictures. Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch who is one of Hirst's biggest collectors, says he buys the artist for his grandiose subjects. …