- Gallery's Hirst survey includes works from 1990s to present
- Controversial artist symbolizes art world's boom -- and bust
A woolly black sheep with golden horns is submerged in a glass tank of formaldehyde. Nearby, dead flies turn a canvas into a grotesque monochrome.
It’s been a while since New York has seen much of Damien Hirst, the provocative multi-millionaire U.K. artist who became synonymous with the art market rush leading up to the financial crisis in 2008 -- and the bust that followed.
And yet there were Hirst’s signature creations -- a spin painting, a pair of pickled sharks -- greeting Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio and billionaire Henry Kravis at the Gagosian Gallery’s booth at the Frieze New York fair on Wednesday. The fair’s fifth edition on Randall’s Island includes more than 200 galleries from 31 countries and runs through May 8.
The Gagosian Gallery organized the survey to mark the artist’s return to the fold after he split from the dealer in 2012. It also coincides with the 20th anniversary of Hirst’s solo debut with Gagosian in New York. The works on view span from the early 1990s to present with prices from $100,000 to about $4 million. Several pieces sold on the opening day, according to Millicent Wilner, a Gagosian director in London. She declined to elaborate.
The reunion of the artist and the dealer appears aimed at reinvigorating Hirst’s career. In addition to the classic Hirst works at Frieze, Gagosian’s Madison Avenue branch is showing new paintings and sculptures, exploring his signature themes of life and death. A series of geometric paintings are inspired by emergency symbols on police cars and ambulances. A convenience-store like shelving unit is filled with cigarettes and alcohol.
“The installation at Frieze is to remind people that Damien Hirst and Larry Gagosian are back together,” said Alberto Mugrabi, a major collector of Hirst. The new work is to bring collectors back. "Here’s Damien saying to his collectors: ‘Look, I am going to work with you. The prices are not crazy,’" he said. Mugrabi bought three paintings at Madison Avenue for $200,000 to $300,000 and a sculpture priced at $1 million.
Hirst, 50, became an international sensation as the ring leader of the Young British Artists in the early 1990s, a group known for the use of shock tactics and unorthodox materials. In 1999, Hirst’s pickled animals arrived at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the traveling exhibition "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection." The show drew controversy and helped turn Hirst into one Britain’s wealthiest artists. Last year, he opened his own private museum in London.
It also helped Hirst’s brand when, in 2004, billionaire trader Steve Cohen paid $8 million for one of his best known works, a large tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” (Cohen later lent it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was on display for three years.)
In the span of four years, his auction revenue jumped more than 2,400 percent. Sales totaled $9.1 million in 2005 and spiked to $230.9 million in 2008, according to Artprice.com. That year, Hirst bypassed his galleries and put more than 200 artworks up for sale at Sotheby’s in London. The auction began on the same day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.
The event tallied $199 million -- and marked the peak for Hirst. In the ensuing years his market suffered even as the high-end art business took off again.
In 2015, his total auction revenue was $20.5 million, according to Artprice. Just one of his works, a glass cabinet filled with cast pills, sold for a record $19.2 million in 2007. The artist doesn’t have a single work in the upcoming semi-annual evening sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s or Phillips in New York next week.
“Damien is one of the most important voices of his generation,” said Abigail Asher, a partner at art advisory firm Guggenheim Asher Associates Inc. “The fact that it can happen to someone like him is a lesson. The market reacted badly to too much work coming all at once and to the amount of trading. When there’s too much speculation, it can backfire on the artist.”
Wilner, who has worked with Hirst since 2004, sees it differently. “Every artist has ups and downs,” she said. “I believe in Damien. It’s always a good time to buy his work.”
Wendy Cromwell, an New York art adviser who has seen the installations at Frieze and on Madison Avenue, agrees.
“I see now as an opportunity to get back into his market at a reasonable level,” she said. “He is a game changing artist and he will stand the test of time.”