Damien Hirst often says that for an artist to be taken seriously, the art should outshine the cash.
In his retrospective at Tate Modern (tomorrow to Sept. 9), the cash sometimes gets the upper hand. Security guards mind his 50-million-pound ($80 million) diamond skull as they would a jewelry store, refusing women with handbags. A nearby skull stall sells 46 pound T-shirts featuring the sparkly cranium.
Cash inevitably comes up in conversation as I and three others interview the U.K.’s richest artist on Tate’s top floor. Jovial Hirst has lost his scruffiness. He looks not unlike an oligarch on his day off: black jacket over a black shirt, multiple (skull) rings, a gold chain around his neck.
With his auction prices down -- the most a Hirst fetched last year was $1.8 million, versus $19.2 million in 2007, according to the Artnet database -- Hirst talks up his market.
“Art is the greatest currency in the world,” says Hirst, 46. “Gold, diamonds, art: I think they’re equal things.”
“It’s a great thing to invest in.”
I recall our first meeting in September 2008, just before Hirst’s direct auction at Sotheby’s (which started on the day of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s collapse) raised 111.5 million pounds. He told me at the time that the money should chase the art and not the other way around. Yet I point out that his paintings of colored spots -- currently on show in 11 Gagosian Galleries around the world -- are now a status symbol.
“Hope that stays true!” he exclaims with a playful grin, confirming with an anecdote. When he started making money, he moved to a swish South Kensington mews and put up a spot painting. One day a neighbor asked him who he was, and when he replied, “she goes, ‘Oh, we wondered how you could afford a spot painting’ -- because I looked like a tramp.”
Still, he stresses, the value is not just in the price tag, because while there are 1,400 spot paintings, “they keep looking great.”
“If you put it outside the pub at the end of the night, would someone take it home?” he asks. “It wouldn’t be there the next day. That’s a definition of a good painting. That’s why it sells for lots of money. But the money is secondary.”
Hirst is equally dismissive of charges that his spot series will lose value, insisting that “they’re not that expensive.”
“It’s a couple of hundred grand for a medium-sized spot painting, and you can buy a Picasso for 150 million pounds, so they’re not up there, and there aren’t many,” he points out. “I say, don’t sell your Hirsts, hang onto them.”
Looking back at his career, Hirst is surprised at how prolific he was in the early 1990s, when he produced the shark in formaldehyde; the bleeding cow’s head, fed on by flies incubated and executed on the spot; and the humid room where butterflies are hatched from white canvases with pupae.
Those all happen to be the strongest displays in the exhibition. And he admits to remembering early works and thinking, “Why didn’t I stop there?”
Ultimately, though, he rejects charges that his best work is behind him. “If you believed that, you would stop, wouldn’t you?” he says. “You always think the next one is going to be the greatest one you’ve ever made.”
He’s currently working on scalpel-blade pictures, paintings with bugs, and pie-chart works, he says. He has stopped the spin paintings (produced by a turntable) and wanted to end the spot series too until he decided to make one with a million spots that will take nine years to finish.
So will that be the last?
“I keep saying yes and no,” says Hirst of his cash spinner. “I keep changing my mind. That’s what happens, isn’t it?”
“Damien Hirst” is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London, from April 4 through Sept. 9, sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk or +44-20-7887-8888.
(Farah Nayeri is a writer for Muse, the arts & leisure section of Bloomberg News. The views expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)