Born: Bristol, United Kingdom
“I always feel like the art’s there and I just see it, so it’s not really a lot of work.”
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Damien Hirst was born in Bristol, England in 1965. His family moved to Leeds shortly after he was born, where he spent much of his childhood. After his parents separated when he was 12, he was raised exclusively by his mother. A rebellious teen, he was arrested twice for shoplifting and was not a strong student, however he showed promise in art, and eventually decided to study at university. Coming of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hirst took a keen interest in the punk music and social scene that was taking hold within British culture, gravitating toward its rejection of tradition and confrontational, gritty subject matter. He was a particular fan of the Sex Pistols – even though his mother once melted one of their LP’s into a fruit bowl – and would reference them numerous times in his later work.
Hirst pursued a B.A. in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London from 1986 to 1989, though his application was rejected the first time he applied. He became intensely absorbed in his studies, and quickly became a prominent member of the student community at Goldsmiths, participating in numerous clubs and organizing student-run events. During his summer breaks, he worked part-time at a mortuary back home in Leeds, an experience that would strongly influence the themes and materials he later utilized as an artist. He occasionally drew specimens and cadavers (a traditional practice among artists in the west) and the job also provided him with the technical knowledge he would later use to transform biological specimens into sculptures.
During his second year at Goldsmiths, he was the lead organizer of a group exhibition called Freeze. The show would mark a turning point in his career. In addition to his own work, the show featured pieces by sixteen fellow students, including Fiona Rae, Sarah Lucas, and other emerging talents in postmodernist art. As a group, they would become known for their take-no-prisoners approach to art, employing shockingly unconventional materials and introducing concepts that challenged the definition of art.
Freeze was held in an inexpensive warehouse space in London’s Docklands, then an unfashionable and far-flung neighborhood. Hirst had initially approached a number of commercial galleries, but found little interest in the project. Michael Craig-Martin, one of Hirst’s professors, persuaded a number of influential people in the British art scene to attend the show. These included Norman Rosenthal of the British Academy, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate museums and galleries, and Charles Saatchi, then-owner of the world’s largest advertising firm who ran his own London gallery. Freeze and Hirst’s subsequent warehouse American art and invest in the new generation of British artists. He hunted down pieces from student shows and alternative gallery spaces, culminating in a series of exhibitions throughout the 1990s with the title Young British Artists. Saatchi’s nomenclature would stick to Hirst and his peers, who are often still referred to as “the Young British Artists,” or YBAs, despite many now being in their 40s and 50s.
Controversy and success continue to be inseparable for Hirst, raising questions about the relationship between art and money that are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. A shrewd businessman, Hirst has transformed himself into a personal brand. He has something to sell to almost anyone. For patrons who prefer not to live with a dead shark, there are his “spot paintings,” easy-to-look-at abstract canvases, based on the molecular structures of controlled pharmaceuticals. Reproductions of the notorious diamond-encrusted skull are available to consumers in an array of prices and sizes. He has also launched his own line of skateboards. In his relentlessly enterprising, unapologetically commercial approach to art, Hirst’s career is closely aligned with that of fellow art star Jeff Koons, who has cited him as an influence. Cindy Sherman, Sarah Lucas, and Tracey Emin have also mentioned Hirst’s impact on their work. Easily one of the most prominent artists of his generation, Hirst’s success – along with that of the other YBAs – helped to create the conditions for the establishment of Tate Modern in 2000, which has since become the most-attended modern art museum in the world.
Hirst continues to be widely criticized by contemporary critics and artists who feel his work is overrated and pretentious. For instance, after his diamond skull (For the Love of God, 2007) failed to sell for its ?50 million asking price, British artist Laura Keeble created an inexpensive replica and photographed it in the trash outside London’s White Cube gallery for a work she titled Forgotten Something? Similarly, in 2009, Spanish artist Eugenio Merino displayed a sculpture of Hirst in a glass case, shooting himself in the head, titled 4 The Love of Go(l)d. Merino, actually a great admirer of Hirst, told The Guardian, “I thought that, given that he thinks so much about money, his next work could be that he shot himself. Like that the value of his work would increase dramatically. Obviously, though, he would not be around to enjoy it.” While Merino claims his work is as much tribute as critique, critics have also lambasted Hirst’s open desire to cash in on his talent and extensive reliance on assistants in creating his work, particularly his “spot paintings.” He is candid about the fact that he did not produce the majority of these paintings, once commenting to an interviewer, “The best person who ever painted spots for me was Rachel [Howard]. She’s brilliant. Absolutely f***ing brilliant. The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel.” His methods and subjects are controversial, but the impact of Hirst’s creativity as an artist, curator, and entrepreneur will likely be felt within the art world for many years to come.