Monday, May 23, 2016

Damien Hirst: From Artist to Curator

Damien Hirst, left, with the abstract painter John Hoyland at Mr. Hoyland’s studio in London in 2009. Credit Jillian Edelstein/Camerapress, via Gamma-Rapho
LONDON — Dead butterflies, sectioned cows and sharks suspended in formaldehyde are archetypal subjects of Damien Hirst’s art. Yet they are absent from the private museum that the British artist is opening in south London on Thursday. In fact, the place will not be showing any Hirsts.
Instead, the Newport Street Gallery — a free, nonprofit center that has cost Mr. Hirst 25 million pounds, or $37.9 million, of his own money to redevelop — will serve as a showcase for the more than 3,000 pieces in his personal collection. These include major works by Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Jeff Koons.
Mr. Hirst is dedicating his inaugural exhibition to a lesser-known artist: the British abstract painter John Hoyland, a fellow Yorkshireman who died in 2011 and whose work he saw as a student.
Mr. Hirst's Newport Street Gallery will show John Hoyland’s art for its inaugural exhibition. Credit Prudence Cuming/Kioyar Ltd.
Mr. Hirst is no newcomer to curating. As the ringleader of a brash clique of art students who became known as the Young British Artists, he staged a pioneering 1988 show (“Freeze”) in a disused London warehouse. He then went on to produce a series of mortality-themed installations — pickled sharks, chopped-up calves, fly-infested cow’s heads, wall-to-wall pharmacy cabinets — that helped him win the 1995 Turner Prize and, within a decade, become Britain’s richest artist, with an estimated fortune of £215 million, according to the 2015 Sunday Times Rich List.
In September 2008, during the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed, Mr. Hirst made £111.5 million auctioning his art directly in a two-day solo Sotheby’s sale here. His prices have dropped since then: The 1996 colored spot painting “Benzhydrol” sold for $514,000 at Sotheby’s in May, while it had fetched $912,000 at Christie’s in 2006.
Two recent painting series have been panned by the critics. The first, shown at the 2009 Wallace Collection exhibition “No Love Lost: Blue Paintings,” was described as “not worth looking at” by The Independent, while the later canvases shown in the 2012 “Two Weeks One Summer” exhibition at the White Cube gallery were called “abominations unto the lord of art” by The Guardian. Many art-world observers see Newport Street as a bid for Mr. Hirst to establish his profile as a curator and museum builder, and consolidate his legacy.
“His critics might be all too ready to praise this particular venture and suggest he should confine himself to this, rather than being an artist. I don’t see the two as separate,” said James Cahill, a critic who co-authored a book on Mr. Hirst’s 2012 Tate Modern retrospective and is now a Cambridge University researcher on links between contemporary British art and classical antiquity. “I see this gallery as a new aspect of his art practice.”
John Hoyland, “28.6.67.” Credit Prudence Cuming Associates/The John Hoyland Estate
Mr. Hirst, who declined media interviews for his gallery opening, spoke in a video interview posted on his website with Tim Marlow, the director of artistic programs at the Royal Academy of Arts. “I always feel it’s a great honor to be able to curate things,” he said. “You play with other people’s works and use them as elements in your own composition.”
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Stretching across 3,437 square meters, the attractive new gallery, which took three years to complete, was designed by the architects Caruso St. John, who transformed Tate Britain and just finished a space in London’s Mayfair District for the Gagosian Gallery, which represented Mr. Hirst until a split in late 2012. On Newport Street, they have revamped a row of century-old Victorian brick buildings and added a brick edifice on either side. The six interior galleries are naturally lit, with luxuriously high ceilings.
The architect Peter St. John noted that unlike in a commercial gallery, where “the relationship with the art is, relatively speaking, quite abrupt,” Newport Street will operate “like a public building, like an institution” — with a foyer, a shop selling books, a restaurant and circulation spaces.
Mr. St. John said he was surprised by how much he saw of Mr. Hirst, describing him as “very involved in every detail of the design” and possessing “an extremely good eye.”
Mr. Hirst has been collecting Hoyland’s works since 2009, according to his staff. A Hoyland abstract has been hanging in his office for the past six months, he said in the video, and he chose to open with the artist because he felt the paintings would “set the space off brilliantly” and vice versa. He personally chose and hung the 33 Hoyland works in the exhibition: handsome wall-length canvases painted from 1964 to 1982 and featuring strips, squares and rectangles of bright and occasionally oozing color. They are a tribute to a gifted abstract artist who was overshadowed by figurative giants like Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Hockney. The most a Hoyland painting has fetched at auction was £185,000 in 2008.
“We could have put a Jeff Koons show on; we could have put a Richard Prince show on. We have enough works,” said the gallery’s senior curator, Hugh Allan, who has known Mr. Hirst since they were both art students in Leeds. “Going left field was the right choice.”
Mr. Hoyland was a longtime critic of conceptual artists like Mr. Hirst. In a 1999 interview with The Independent, he said Mr. Hirst was “becoming an entrepreneur, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. Artists should not farm their work out.” Yet when the two met at his studio in 2009, “Damien said all the right things, so of course that made John very happy, and they got on like a house on fire,” said his widow, Beverley Heath-Hoyland, who attended the preview and now oversees the estate.
Newport Street’s next shows are yet to be decided. “I’m trying not to agree to any shows in the future so that I can chop and change,” Mr. Hirst said in the video. Mr. Allan said the plan was to stage solo, two-person or group shows, all from Mr. Hirst’s collection, with no borrowing.
John Hoyland’s “Advance Town 29.3.80.” Credit Prudence Cuming Associates/The John Hoyland Estate
There is no shortage of art in the Murderme Collection, as it is known. Kate Davies, head of the collection, said Mr. Hirst owns multiple Bacons, Warhols, Picassos, Giacomettis and Richard Hamiltons, and a large number of works by Koons and Prince. Star pieces were displayed at the Serpentine Gallery from November 2006 to January 2007, including Bacon’s “A Study for a Figure at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1943-44), and Warhol’s “Little Electric Chair” (1965).
Ms. Davies said a fellow Young British Artist, Sarah Lucas, was the most represented, though Mr. Hirst collected the works of other Y.B.A.’s. He has also recently started buying the paintings of the New York-based artist John Copeland, Ms. Davies added. She said that Mr. Hirst tended to hold onto works — though he would occasionally dispose of one — and had stepped up purchases ahead of the gallery opening. His choices were always unexpected, she said, adding: “You can’t second-guess Damien.”
Mr. Hirst is still producing art, said Ms. Davies, and according to an article in June in The Guardian, he is preparing to show new work in 2017. (His representatives would not confirm the planned exhibition.) Either way, his legacy is assured, critics say.
“He’s made art history anyway,” said Mel Gooding, a critic and Hoyland specialist who was on the Turner Prize jury the year after Mr. Hirst won it. As for what comes next, “there are lots of ways in which he might take us by surprise.”