Damien Steven Hirst, the world’s richest artist ($332 million according to Britain’s Sunday Times), full-time businessman, part time art-collector, sometime restaurateur, P.T. Barnum imitator, and most famous member of the Young British Artists (or YBAs), a creative covey who came to prominence in the 1990s, died last Thursday, January 12, in New York following complications from acute diverticulitis brought on by a swinishly speculative, grossly cynical, intellectually constipated effort to pinch out 11 concurrent exhibitions of rehashed expensive crap. He was 46.
Coming merely a day after the press preview for his recent multi-venue extravaganza titled “The Complete Spot Paintings: 1986–2011” at Larry Gagosian’s glut of global galleries (three in New York, two in London, and one each in Beverly Hills, Rome, Athens, Paris, Geneva, Hong Kong, and Moscow), and only months before his two-decade retrospective at London’s Tate Modern (scheduled for April 4), Hirst’s sudden death surprised fans and critics alike. One grumbler (who preferred obscurity to legend) quipped: “It was bound to happen. Call it the physical impossibility of living in the mind of someone brain-dead. There’s absolutely nothing formaldehyde can do about that.” The artist, who once famously noted that a banana stuck in dog doo could easily pass for his own art, might have himself concurred.
For a figure as conspicuously obsessed with mortality as Hirst, his newest grab for fortune and artistic notoriety proved a suicidal strain. Consisting of more than 300 paintings of colored dots on white backgrounds that his dealer strong-armed back from more than 100 international collectors, Hirst’s most recent exhibition-as-an-oompapa-stunt became only the latest in a series of grasping gambles he designed—as he put it after his 2008, $198 million, one-man Sotheby’s auction—to “go out with a bang.” Unlike Oscar Wilde, who in death literally erupted all over his hotel room like an Icelandic volcano, Hirst’s final wheeze (if we consider this last act of windiness forensically) passed with a squeak more resembling a gassy whimper.
Rather than slake his storied avarice, Hirst’s mounting millions merely spurred on more dangerously covetous behavior, masquerading largely as a bond trader’s strategy for producing investment-grade meta-art. There was the 2007 platinum-and-diamond-studded skull, For the Love of God, which—if you believe Andy Warhol was a natural blond—sold to a global “consortium” (that included Hirst himself!) for $100 million. There was the artist’s aforementioned big auction-house adventure; and, finally, there was Hirst’s worldwide spectacular of spots on the wall—an artistic concept the Briton contested in life with Chinese expressionist painter Hu Flung Du. The courtroom fights were genius!
Despite Hirst’s past promise to not make any more spot paintings—at Gagosian’s salons and elsewhere, they feature monotonous rows of colored enamel dots on white canvases, nothing more—he persisted till the end on presenting a uniform line of product-like-objects he personally “couldn’t be fucking arsed” to make himself. Brushed on by some 100-plus studio assistants for the amusement of the Tod’s loafers set—i.e., the Michael Hedgefunders and Boris Plutocrats of the world—these color-by-numbers paintings represent the artist’s sweetbreads heaved fresh and warm at the upper reaches of an art market that likes its transgressions, predictably, on the rich side. Prior to Hirst’s death, the temptation flourished to consider this far-flung exhibition (not the art) an ironic beard for his market manipulations (his real art). After his untimely passing, groupies (of both the Rip Van With It and Art-Is-a-Foolproof-Asset varieties) remain convinced of the artfulness of this vision.
Hirst, the waiting biopic tells us, was born in Bristol to working-class parents who later separated. Brought up in scrappy Leeds by his no-nonsense mother, Mary, he had his rebellious streak mercilessly gelded when she cut up his bondage trousers and melted his favorite Sex Pistols’ album. (“She put it on the gas, and it just went whoosh!—because it said ‘bollocks.'”) On turning 18, the artist moved to London, where he attended Goldsmiths’s art school (until recently, Britmouth for Yale or Columbia). He studied there, worked construction, and, in time, organized an exhibition of young artists called “Freeze.” Art, at once, stood still and was never the same again.
A first loud salvo in a career full of symphonic hype, “Freeze” featured Hirst reprising the artist-as-impresario role made famous by such historical figures as Giorgio Vasari and Malcolm McLaren. After dispatching limos to collect Charles Saatchi and the Royal Academy’s Norman Rosenthal for curated exhibitions, the artist turned to fabricating his own sugar-free pop shock—consumer objects that kept one eye peeled on art’s significant liberties while maintaining predatory focus on the art market’s exploding gamesmanship. Butterfly paintings, a shark in a tank, cut-up animals, steel cabinets with pills, humongous cutaway sculptures, his repetitive Twister paintings—these were all deployed like powerful tokens on a Risk board. It was around this time that Hirst announced: “I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment, if I did certain things, people would look at it, consider it, and then say ‘fuck off.’ But after a while, you can get away with things.” You certainly could, old boy, you most certainly could.
Yet not everything about this almost mythical me-first artist translated directly into personal enrichment. There are those, like this memorialist, who earnestly contend that Hirst is singularly responsible for the raising of the Tate Modern, the sphinx-like rebirth of the Turner Prize, and—together with the bands Pulp, Blur, Oasis, and the lads at Manchester F.C.—for having tractor-pulled Britain out of centuries of insipid brown-sauce nostalgia. They and, no doubt, others will miss the passing of this colossal figure: the Alpha Tout who best represented the pluck and promotion of Cool Britannia. Although loutishly British, Hirst was the art world’s huckster laureate. But expiring at the dawn of an era when money is no longer regarded as the exclusive, all-consuming subject of art, Hirst passed on before the wind fully changed direction and blew the froth back in his face. Had he hung on much longer, he would have found that he and his art had finally—in the time it takes an actual living human to give a shit about something, anything, other than money—gone from cool to tool.