Sunday, 20 September 2009





Going to the opening of the exhibition selected from Damien Hirst’s private collection  at London’s Serpentine Gallery was like trying to gain admittance to an ultra-fashionable nightclub. Stand in line to get into another line to squeeze through the door of the gallery itself. Another comparison would be with the experience of checking in at London’s Heathrow airport. No luggage, thank God, but quite a few ‘clipboard nazis’ – officious girls with lists, who demand to see one’s credentials.


All of this was a tribute to the immense fame Hirst now enjoys, not only in his own country, but almost everywhere that a contemporary art world exists. Hirst, born in 1965, is the leading member of the YBAs – the group of Younger British Artists who achieved public notoriety through the ‘Sensation!’ exhibition held at the Royal Academy in London just over ten years ago. Then, the group seemed more or less coherent, though the work made by its members had no common style. Now, Hirst has outstripped all of his rivals, both in terms of the prices realized for his work, and in terms of public notoriety. He has also dumped the man who was at that time his chief patron, the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, whose collection supplied the material for ‘Sensation!’


It is not uncommon for leading modern artists to turn collector, as soon as they manage to lay hands on any money. In general, the leaders of the avant-garde during the first half of the 20th century specialized in what was then called Primitive Art. Picasso had fine carvings from Africa, the Surrealists expanded their interests to include material from Oceania. In Britain, two leading sculptors, Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, both had fine small collections – Moore also had Ancient Greek pieces and a few early medieval ones. The artists of this period also owned some work by their contemporaries, usually, but not invariably acquired by exchange. Moore had a wonderful small Cézanne; Picasso owned an important painting by Balthus.


Hirst is now said to possess around 1100 art works, which he plans to house at the vast neo-Gothic house he has recently bought in Gloucestershire. Only 63 of these are on view at the Serpentine. There are no ‘primitive’ works, Old Masters or antiquities – everything is the product of his contemporaries are almost-contemporaries. Basically they fall into four categories, which one can designate as follows: Parents, Brothers, Old Friends and Children or Disciples. The ‘Parents’ are Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol, the first represented by an early ‘Study for a Figure at the Base of a Crucifixion’, the latter by a small ‘Electric Chair’. Hirst’s admiration for Bacon is well known. The Warhol is also not surprising, both because Warhol is the paradigm of artists who ran or run their careers on firmly commercial lines, and because the painting chosen echoes Hirst’s own preoccupation with death. The ‘Brothers’ are American artists whose success echoes that of Hirst himself – they include Richard Prince, John Currin and Jeff Koons. Koons is the Damien Hirst of America, just as Hirst is the Jeff Koons of Britain. One would have been surprised if he had not been present, since the two artists are clearly twin souls. Currin is a slightly more unexpected choice. There are two paintings by him at the Serpentine, one of which looks much like one of those kitsch Picabias based on pinups that influenced Andy Warhol when he embarked on his series of ‘Marilyns’. Hirst recently announced his intention to do more painting – and to do it himself, rather than getting it done by other people. Maybe Currin seems to point the way.


‘Old Friends’ forms by far the largest category – these are artists who have long formed part of Hirst’s circle. Most participated in the shows Hirst presented when he was acting as an independent curator, at the very end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, at the period when Saatchi first took him up. These artists also appeared in ‘Sensation!’, but none has been as successful as Hirst. The best known  are Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. The latter is familiar in Barcelona through a solo exhibition at Tecla Sala, when this was directed by Victoria Combalia. At least one of the items shown then reappears at the Serpentine Gallery. Hirst is said to have purchased a large group of works by Lucas from Saatchi, who was preparing to get rid of them, just as he recently rid himself of Hirst’s own iconic shark.


There were artists in ‘Sensation!’ who are now almost, though not quite, as successful as Hirst himself. Fascinatingly, these are nowhere to be seen at the Serpentine. The absentees include the Chapman brothers, Rachel Whiteread and Ron Mueck. Hirst ‘bears, like the Turk, no rival near the throne’, to quote the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope.


By Hirst’s ‘Children’ I mean young artists with whom he sometimes collaborates and whom he allows to work in his studio. The most interesting of these is a painter called Tom Ormond, born in 1974, and thus almost ten years younger than Hirst, Ormond paints idyllic, rather Victorian landscapes invaded by strange modernistic structures. With their combination of the sinister and the whimsical they have something in common with the work of young American painters such as Lisa Yuksavage.


Another ‘Child’, but clearly an unruly one, is the graffiti artist Banksy, also born in 1974. Bansky, who at one time specialized in infiltrating his own works into very grand institutions such as the British Museum, the Louvre and the Mertropolitan Museum in New York, then waiting to see when they would actually notice the intrusion, has suddenly become fashionable and has been taken up by the Hollywood elite. In stylistic terms, however, his work is nostalgic – almost more like Warhol than the real thing.


Today in the British art world there is a sense that things are suddenly at a standstill – that the creative energy of the 1990s has run out. By showing his collection – his own personal choices in art – Hirst, who is the most fashionable artist of the past decade, had a chance to get things moving again. Yet, despite all the hype surrounding it, this looks like a show whose job is to defend the status quo. Which is not good news for British art, or indeed for contemporary art in general.


At the Serpentine Gallery, London, until 28 January 2007.


This site was last updated 20-09-2009