The Magazine

Citizen Hirst

You'll be shocked to learn that the world's wealthiest artist can't draw.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By HENRIK BERING
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Damien Hirst

No Love Lost, Blue Paintings

The Wallace Collection

October 14, 2009 - January 24, 2010

Hertford House, London

Damien Hirst is the world's most successful artist, a global brand known for its shock value. In the 1990s he emerged as the front figure of the Young British Artists, a group that included Tracey Emin, who exhibited her own slightly soiled bed, and the Chapman brothers, who created a toy soldier concentration camp. As the high priest of the movement, Hirst became the chief proponent of concept art--that is, the view that in art the idea is all that matters, while the execution is something mechanical best left to others. Technical skills and craftsmanship in the artist are regarded as irrelevant, even suspect, and when these terms occur, they are invariably prefaced with the word "mere."

Inspired by Andy Warhol's factory system, Hirst has built a business empire employing an army of 120 assistants carrying out his ideas, some serving in the pickling division (pickling sharks, cows, and sheep), others in the laundry division (in charge of dryers and spinners for his spin paintings), or in the medical division (polishing and arranging pills in his medical cupboards). To this one can add a crack sales team peddling the products.

In a 2001 interview book, On the Way to Work, Hirst contemplates an installation to be called The History of Fame, featuring a white inflated balloon

suspended on a jet of air above several dozen fiercely sharpened Sabatier knives. The History of Fame would have an audience soundtrack--rumbles of anticipation and applause when the ball dropped close to the knives and appeared to be in danger of bursting; groans of disappointment when it floated clear of the daggers and the carvers waiting to go to work.

Now, Hirst's own balloon seems to have hit the knives. The occasion is his London exhibition of 25 artworks. Produced in a studio at Claridge's during 2006-08, the paintings feature some well-known Hirst motifs: skulls, ashtrays, shark jaws.

It is not the subject matter that is shocking: Hirst's obsession with death and decay is longstanding and includes early works like a calf's head infested with maggots which turn into flies that are zapped by an electric insect grill, not to mention his arrangement of rotting, copulating cattle, a work that was banned by health authorites in New York. On this background, a skull is small beer. No, what is shocking is that he has tried to paint his subjects, in the process revealing himself to be utterly bereft of talent. The London critics were at their most magnificently sulfurous, and they were unanimous. The Times called the works "dreadful" and "shockingly bad." Panning the artist's "turgid teen angst," the Independent's Tom Lubbock wrote, "There are many painters you'd find in evening classes much worse than Hirst. On the other hand, you'd find quite a few better. To try and be accurate, as a painter, Hirst is about at the level of a not very promising first year student. He is in his mid-forties."

His skulls look "like the confectionery skulls children gobble in Mexico on the Day of the Dead," chimed in the Observer's Peter Conrad. "Despite the rowdy bravado with which he jokes about mortality and welcomes the Apocalypse, he has the small soul of an interior decorator." Even the Guardian, which normally considers itself extremely progressive, called them "a memento mori for a reputation."

Hirst certainly tempted fate by his choice of venue, the Wallace Collection in Hertford House, which contains works by Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, and Fragonard, thereby inviting direct comparison. Out of his own pocket, he had shelled out £250,000 to have the ceiling gilded and the walls clad in candy-striped blue silk--made, as all the papers gleefully pointed out, by Prelle of Lyons, the firm that used to cater to the whims of Marie Antoinette.

"Bumptiously confronting Titian, Poussin, and other venerable elders at the Wallace Collection, Hirst is enjoying his temporary ownership of the trampled, desecrated earth. But he is not a legitimate heir and the Wallace Collection is playing host to a jumped up pretender," snarled Conrad.