CHERRY BLOSSOMS IN PARIS. Damien Hirst talks about his life and the new paintings on beauty, life and death that he plans to exhibit at Fondation Cartier.
This interview with Damien Hirst is also available to listen to as a podcast and on YouTube.
Damien Hirst, there are four artists that stand out as influences in your life and work: Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Jeff Koons.
You could put Chaim Soutine and de Kooning with Bacon, that very fleshy way of painting. Goya as well, before Bacon. And I suppose Warhol with Koons, together.
Do you like the simplicity of Warhol?
I also like the way he dealt with money, because he made it OK for artists to make money and he made it OK for a factory or a studio. That was a big change in the world. After the war, people didn’t really want to talk about money. Money couldn’t be a reason to do anything because there wasn’t any money. That’s why you get Freud and Bacon making those paintings; that’s why they struggled with money. They couldn’t handle it.
You have said that an artist feels more creative when there is no money.
It’s true, but it’s wrong and I don’t like it. If you’re an artist, you can make art about anything, so you shouldn’t be inhibited when money’s around. If it’s easier when you have no money, it becomes a kind of illusion of something.
Your career began many years ago with curating the exhibition Freeze, when you were unknown and brought together people of your generation.
It’s funny now because people do that all the time, but then it was considered a really weird thing to do. People didn’t do that then.
And then your world was changed by Charles Saatchi, because you started making money.
Saatchi was really good for me. The best thing for me was that I first saw the Saatchi Gallery when I was just a student, and I wanted to show there. To achieve that dream was amazing.
Did you find him an interesting person?
I didn’t really meet him early on because he was very reclusive, but when I met him, I liked him. There was a lot of talk at the time that it was really disgusting that there was an individual who was changing art values with buying power. Everyone was up in arms about it. He used to buy whole exhibitions and at art school people were saying you can’t sell to him because he changes the market by buying the whole exhibition. But I always found all that exciting. I loved the myth of Saatchi, before I met him.
In those days one of your works was worth fifty thousand pounds?
No, it was worth five hundred pounds. Fifty thousand came a lot later. Saatchi was buying works for one thousand five hundred pounds. One thousand four hundred I think he bought the fly piece for.
Did you imagine your career would make such great progress?
My first dream in the art library in Leeds, they had all the art books, was that I would love to get a book in here with my name on it. My goals were always a little bit further along: to show at the Saatchi Gallery, to show at Anthony d’Offay. When I first bought a roll of bubble wrap, that was the most famous I felt. It’s like 40 pounds and so I split it with my friend Angus Fairhurst. We bought a roll together and we wrapped up our painting and wrote our names on in Sharpie. We were looking at the wrapped painting going, this is amazing. I worked at Anthony d’Offay, and they threw away bubble wrap. We couldn’t understand. How can you throw it away? Its 40 pounds a roll. I needed to get it out of the bin and fold it up and take it home to wrap up my work.
Then you showed with Larry Gagosian, and Jay Jopling at White Cube?
I love Larry just because of his spaces. I liked Jay as a person. We got on, with a similar age and he’s from Thirsk, which is near Leeds. Even though we have different backgrounds.
Were you friends?
I liked him as the man, whereas with Larry it was the spaces, because Jay had quite small spaces in the beginning. He didn’t have the great spaces like Larry, but Larry’s spaces were like supermarkets for art and I loved that. It’s great. I still believe that the way to get any artist to do anything is a great space.
With Larry you made a big exhibition of 300 paintings.
I did a show of the whole series of the spot paintings with Larry. He had so many galleries and I thought, well I’ve got this huge body of work.
In 2008 you controversially sold your paintings in auction at Sotheby’s, without any dealer. Was this quite a moment?
I just like doing what you’re not supposed to do, what you’re not allowed to do as well. I like breaking the rules. I like to misbehave. I still do.
Did you misbehave as a child too?
If somebody says you can’t do something, I want to find out why you can’t at least, and often you find out that there is no reason why you can’t.
The curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist has said that you are a bit like Picasso, with periods. Why do you make a series with one obsession and then stop and do something completely different?
The world’s constantly changing. If you make art that is about the world today it is not going to be about the world tomorrow. I think you’ve got to change. You keep changing.
“A piece of artwork can continue saving lives after a person’s died. By giving people hope and reasons to live.”
Damien Hirst, RENEWAL BLOSSOM, 2018. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates. ©Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2020.
How did you first come to use formaldehyde to preserve animals as art?
I did life drawing when I was at Foundation course in Jacob Kramer Art School in Leeds, and then I found out that there was an anatomy museum. I went to the anatomy museum to draw from cadavers, and they were in formaldehyde in jars. It was for life drawing in the beginning. Then, when I got to Goldsmiths, I got into minimal art. I was looking at Sol LeWitt and very minimal sculptures. I thought, oh, my God, I should make a Sol LeWitt with an animal in it. I wanted to make something figurative but minimal as well. An artwork has to last, and I realised that the things in these jars were 100 or 200 years old. I remember thinking, wow, if that lasts 100 years, I can put an actual thing in a gallery that was alive, make art that was real.
Was preserving the shark your first idea?
The fish first, and then the shark.
But you had problems with the preservation of the shark.
They were really problems with Saatchi because it was a commission. He said, we’ll do it my way. He researched and said, I found out you don’t need to inject it, a shark is like a sponge and will absorb the formaldehyde if you just soak it in the liquid. I said, no, you do need to inject it, and he said, no. He was using his art moving company, and they did it without injecting it and then of course it started to decay inside. I wasn’t strong enough to do it the way I wanted.
You did another one?
Yes, I had to get a new shark eventually.
After that you did all kinds of different animals?
I had an idea I wanted to do a zoo of dead animals, because when I was younger I loved zoos, but then I realised that the animals are all miserable. So then I thought it was a cool idea to do a zoo of dead animals.
Then you got into cabinets full of medicines?
I started everything at the same time and did lots of series that were all begun together. In the beginning the first things I did were endless series, so the spot paintings and the spin paintings and the butterflies were meant to be endless series. But then with an endless series you get stuck, because you change and they don’t make as much sense anymore.
There is a medicine cabinet at auction at Phillips in the coming days. How many did you do?
I made twelve of the original series in 1989, and then I made a few more for friends.
Like Warhol, you always worked with a group of people. This is modern, but it’s also ancient. The old masters called it “bottega” in Italian.
It’s a good idea. A lot of people say when you make art in a factory it’s a negative thing, but factories can make great things as well as bad things. A factory kills chickens and it’s shit, but a factory makes Ferraris and it’s amazing. Just because it’s a factory, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Cut back art to its basic level and it’s painting. It’s just you in a little room with some canvas and some paints.
You don’t like that?
I do like that, but I think it’s very difficult to use that process and make a comment about the multifaceted world that we live in today. You get on the subway and think, how am I going to paint this? And you want to make light boxes and sculptures and 3-D installations. The whole world is so crazy today that it’s very hard to make art that’s a reflection of that using only paints and canvases. But it keeps changing.
Do you love to draw?
Draw and paint.
When you have too many ideas in your head, then do you have to draw and paint?
I think all artists are like that. That’s a thing about art and you have to process things in some way. The great thing about drawing is it’s cheap, so you can visualize very expensive ideas and things very cheaply while you’re on the pencil and paper stage. If you want to do a very expensive sculpture, it’s very good to start with drawing.
In Venice in 2017 during the Biennale you made a very large exhibition with the Fondation Pinault called Treasures from the Wreck of Unbelievable. That implies a lot of drawing. How does one do something like that?
If you do many little things you get a big thing, but the main thing is it needs lots of time. I had a conversation with my gardener, and looking at the garden I’d said I want some trees, how big can you get them? And he said, you can get them huge or seeds but whatever you do you need a ten-year plan because a garden won’t really bed in for ten years. That’s quite good, that way of working. I was making a spot painting and selling a painting one after another after another but I thought I would make a 10 year plan and do something more like Duchamp’s Large Glass and just work and work on a large piece. It’s a good way to get out of the gallery system as well, because the galleries aren’t really interested if you’ve got something that’s ten years away.
You dealt with the collector François Pinault instead?
He came in later. Pinault came in when I’d been working on it for six years, so there was quite a lot to see.
“You have to work out what you are, and I worked out I was all over the place.“
Damien Hirst, do you need many studios for your work?
Next to one studio that I’ve got in Stroud in Gloucestershire is a foundry where they make bronze sculptures. The sculptor Lynn Chadwick built the foundry in the 50s, and I bought my studio from Lynn before he died.
Is that where you live?
I don’t live there. I have a house in Devon, a studio in Gloucestershire, and then studios in London. I commute.
In London you have also have Newport Street Gallery, where you recently showed your collection and also a big exhibition on Jeff Koons. Why are you a fan of Jeff Koons?
I think he’s great. He’s American and I’ve always loved the Americans. America is very different to Britain, but we’re all heavily influenced by America. Jeff is the perfect artist to follow Warhol. He’s America today. He’s amazing.
He is also liked by children?
Your art has to be liked by children or it’s no good.
Children like contemporary art at the moment.
Yes, but all art begins its life as contemporary.
Did you ever read a book called ‘The Map and the Territory’ by a French writer called Houellebecq?
I never read it, but I’ve got the book. Somebody told me it’s funny. I should read it.
He depicts you and Koons as the two artists of the time.
I suppose it depends how long the time is. Maybe the time is only eight seconds.
Do you care about your own collection?
Yes. I love art. I feel lucky to be able to have great art.
You bought some Bacons?
Yeah, I’ve got one in my bedroom at the minute. It is amazing.
And you have Jeff Koons?
I have many artists, like Richard Prince. I’ve got all my friends that were in Freeze.
You have said that the Beatles are more important than Picasso?
They are to me. Picasso’s a great painter, but what I loved about the Beatles was the fact that they grew up in public.
How did you link Picasso and the Beatles together?
Four people trying to work together as one is really difficult. As an artist, I thank God I don’t have to do that because it’s hard enough making decisions on my own. With three other people to make decisions with, that would be very difficult. Making art and making music are very similar. Anything done well is art. A lot of people argue about the Stones and the Beatles.
The Beatles are not your generation. You are younger than that.
I got into my parents’ music. My mom hated the Beatles music, but my dad loved it. I used to listen to the Beatles on my dad’s 8-track in the car on repeat. It just played endlessly. It was the first band I ever got into, when I was nine or ten.
Do you very much like repeating the same thing?
It’s part of the world we live in today, isn’t it? You get comfort from it. When I first went to art school, I remember thinking about a unique painting by El Greco, do I want to own that painting? Do I want to be the creator of that painting, or do I want the merchandising aspects of it. They were always in the world together. Do I want the postcards? How many postcards have been made of this painting? How many times has it been photographed? You’ve got this unique object, but then you’ve got the people who visit it endlessly. It becomes this thing that gets constantly reproduced, and I always thought that the art exists somewhere between the icon and the reproductions. It is not just the icon and it’s not just the reproductions. It’s something in the middle, and I wanted both.
You don’t like the idea of a unique piece?
I like both. Some things have to be unique because of their nature, but then other things you just want them to keep moving. When we look at the world, everybody wants a TV like your TV. I want shelves like your shelves. Repetition. I wanted to make art about the world I lived in, a world where there were endless cigarette packets.
As human beings we hate the idea that we will die. Are death and dying your main concern?
I think all art is about that. I don’t think there is anything else. It doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to fathom. The older you get, the less easy it gets. Is it life or is it death? I think life is death because the excitement of life is death. There isn’t anything else, and it can be taken away at any moment unexpectedly.
Does this frighten you?
It both excites me and it frightens me. There isn’t an artwork that I like that doesn’t deal with that issue. Take Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’, that’s a moment, and it’s an active moment, and it can be seen as life. But then the only reason why it’s life is because just around the corner is death. I say the Hockney Splash painting is about death when I look at it. But a lot of people will say, no, it’s not. I’ve always believed that you have to confront things you can’t avoid, and death is one of those things. You can’t avoid it. If I could avoid it, I would probably avoid it. But we can’t. So you have to confront it.
Is this why you are so obsessed by medicines and pills that you made cabinets full of them?
Yes. The idea that medicines can somehow give you immortality, which they can’t. I love the conundrum. I love what we do culturally. We believe doctors and we don’t believe artists.
Sometimes doctors save lives.
Well, not for long.
At least in an emergency.
Yes, they can, but they can’t ultimately. Artists also save lives but in a different way to doctors. You have to believe that. A piece of artwork can continue saving lives after a person’s died. By giving people hope and reasons to live.
Did you stop taking drugs and drinking because you were afraid?
I stopped drugs and drinking because I was out of control. I don’t think afraid comes into it. It stops being fun and became a habit. It starts getting in the way. When you start drinking in the beginning, it’s sexy, you’re cute. You look at young people drinking and it looks like fun. But when you look at old people drinking, it looks like shit, you just think, get away from me. When young people drink, you can recover in 24 hours, whereas the last time I drank, which was 13 years ago, it took me two and a half weeks to recover.
Did this affect your three children?
One of them never saw me drinking. One of them can vaguely remember it. The other one saw all of it because he’s 22 years old now.
Did he help you to stop?
I guess my kids were a part of it. You realise that things were failing.
Do you like being a father?
I love it, yes. It’s amazing. It connects your whole life. You see the beginning of your life through your kid’s life, because you missed the first bit because you were too young.
Do they help you in your work?
Yes. My 14-year old is trying to pretend he doesn’t like art because he’s rebelling against me. When I came home one day, he had built himself a studio out of cardboard because he came to my studio. He had a chair in the middle with an umbrella taped to the chair and he put his drawings on the walls, and he sat on the chair and went: My studio is better than yours.
Is he an artist himself?
All children are creative, aren’t they? So it’s really good to see that and remind yourself.
Did you always want to be an artist?
I originally wanted to be a deep-sea diver, but then I found out about sharks. I never really thought about being an artist. I thought about being an architect a lot. I always loved art and I always loved drawing but never thought….
Are you obsessed by water and glass?
Glass is amazing. You can see through it.
Does this come from childhood?
I’ve always liked it. I’ve always been interested in glass as a material. It’s dangerous.
You will open a new show in Paris in the summer?
Yes, the Cartier Foundation in the Jean Nouvel building on Boulevard Raspail in Paris.
This is completely different to your first show in Paris at the Perrotin Gallery some years ago. You have chosen a Japanese subject, cherry trees, with lots of pink and blue sky. How many are in the show?
Around twenty-eight paintings.
Damien Hirst, FANTASIA BLOSSOM, 2018. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates. ©Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2020.
THE PHYSICAL IMPOSSIBILITY OF DEATH IN THE MIND OF SOMEONE LIVING, 1991 © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates.
MOTHER AND CHILD (DIVIDED), Exhibition Copy 2007 (original 1993), installed at Tate Modern, 2012. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates
Damien Hirst, HYMN, 1999-2005. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2020.
DEMON WITH BOWL, 2014 © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates.
NEWPORT STREET GALLERY. Courtesy of Science Ltd. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates.
“The whole world is so crazy today that it’s very hard to make art that’s a reflection of that using only paints and canvases. But it keeps changing.“
Damien Hirst, how did you journey from Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable to this beautiful work like Monet and the Japanese?
It’s always been going on. Cherry blossoms are a good example of what we were talking about earlier. The Japanese say cherry blossoms are all about death, but you look at them and think they’re all about life. It’s the momentary feeling of it. When I did the Treasures exhibition I had a lot of time, because I had so many other people working on everything that once I’d set it in motion, I had maybe a year to not do anything, so I got into the studio and started painting. In the early 90s I did the Visual Candy Paintings, they were very small. At the time I was going back to when I was taught by a 50s painter in Leeds called Patrick Oliver, who was a bit like Peter Lanyon. He believed in paint how you feel. Browns and sombres if you’re feeling dark, reds and yellows if you’re feeling happy. He would say what a real painter does is gestural and big. I always had that in me, but it didn’t make sense in the world I was living in in the 90s. But I wanted to do it, so I made these paintings called Visual Candy, but they were very small. At the same time I was doing big spot paintings which were 10 feet square, but I was painting these small paintings and going: Fuck you – I don’t care – I’m going to paint like this. When I started painting these cherry blossoms in the studio they were a continuation of that, but they were the right size. They were just really big, and a big celebration of something, of movement, of light, of flowers. Somebody asked me, are you in love? when they came in the studio.
You also have a period of Butterflies. Why butterflies? Why dots? And why cherry blossoms?
They’re all aspects of the same thing. I once thought a good title for a show of my work would be a short history of painting. I think that’s what I’ve done in my work, it is a history of painting, and even things that are not paintings are kind of painterly. I look as hard at the edge of a painting as I do at the front. So when I make a painting, I see them more sculpturally. The paintings I’m working on now, I decided to not have any tape on the edges. I don’t want clean edges. I just want them all dirty and messed up with the paint.
For the cherry blossom trees?
Yes. The decision is to make messy edges, whereas with other paintings, the spot paintings, I want a perfect edge. I don’t want any fingermarks, I want it totally clean. I work all that out in advance. I see a painting as a kind of sculptural object.
Do you like the fact that work by Damien Hirst is now so recognized?
Like a logo, yes, I love the way that art gets to that.
Are your cherry trees more classical, like Monet?
They’re very recognizable as well. I try to make work that is really recognizable.
Are they very big paintings?
They’re all sizes. I have done a series of 90 paintings.
Are those on show for sale?
No, we just show. I’ve sold quite a lot already, so the ones that are sold, we borrow for the show. It’s all about which paintings are best for the show. I like to keep museums and galleries separate.
How will you lay out the show?
There are two spaces upstairs which are big, and then a smaller basement space. I’ve got big paintings upstairs and smaller paintings downstairs. Downstairs I’ve put 18 paintings that are all the same size, nine feet by six feet.
Will visitors feel like they are going into a Japanese garden?
I hope you just have a feeling of getting lost in each painting.
Now that you’ve finished this series, do you already have something else in mind?
Many things, and lots of silly ideas, too.
How do you decide what you are going to do?
In the beginning, when I started the spot paintings, I had a fantasy that I was going to paint only spots and never do anything else. But then I realized, actually, no. You have to work out what you are, and I worked out I was all over the place. It’s kind of a negative thing that I had to make into a positive.
Some say that you are hugely talented with great work and others that you’re not even an artist. How do you react to this?
I’d rather have mixed reviews than all bad or all good. I quite like it when there are debates, when somebody hates you and somebody loves you. But the problem is always if you agree with it when somebody says something negative. If they’re right, I hate that.
Then what do you do?
Well, then you think, fuck, and you have to change it. Luckily that doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes it does.
You were very relevant and you still are. How do you maintain your relevance?
You have to think. You have to ask yourself the question of how you measure success, because there are many ways to measure success. You can measure your success in terms of the amount of paintings you sell, in terms of the amount of reviews you get or the people you please, or the museums you are in. Many ways. I always try and think that I make art for people who haven’t been born yet. That’s my audience.
Do you think that our contemporary art is going to endure?
Humans need art. People who haven’t been born yet will decide what’s relevant, and artists today just have to try to make art that you think is relevant. When I look back at works of art, I get a view into a world that I can get no other way. I can read history books, but the eyes are what give me a real insight into what was happening 200 years ago, and it makes me connect to the living people. Even with prehistoric art, you can connect to the living people in that way and you can’t in any other way. And then what is relevant? Who knows. The other thing I love is the artists. What I love when I look at Picasso, his whole work, all of it, is like a map of his life. And I love the map of his life, the highs, the lows, everything. So as an artist, one thing that my art’s got to be is a map of my life, and then it’s not for me to decide whether I survive or fail.
Do you regret some of your work, and other pieces that you consider your masterpieces?
It’s irrelevant, because it’s not about what you make it is what you try to do. I’m not trying to please people. I’m not trying to get into the Tate Gallery. I’m trying to make art. And it’s a different thing.
You won the Turner Prize?
I lost it one year and then I won another year, but I don’t do very well in prizes. I think when I won it, I shouldn’t have won it. I only won it because they felt they needed to give it to me. And I lost it because they didn’t want to give it to me, because they wanted to make a statement.
Do you like being an artist?
I love art and I love making art. I love being in a position where I can afford to make art. I love all the things that come with that. Being a famous artist is not all great.
Is being famous important to you?
It’s not. It’s a distraction, something you have to keep an eye on and make sure that you don’t get things mixed up. It’s very easy to mix things up.
Are you frightened of losing fame?
I think it’s easier to make art when you’re not famous than it is when you’re famous.
Are you jealous of other famous artists?
I usually look at the art. Sometimes with Jeff Koons, I’ve been a bit jealous. It’s only human nature, but I sold a pill cabinet and I was the most expensive living artist at auction and then two weeks later, Jeff Koons was the most expensive living artist at auction. It’s like you just bought the biggest yacht in the world and somebody comes and parks next to you. But whenever I think like that, I look at a Jeff Koons work and I completely forget, because this is about an artwork and an individual, and when I’m looking at art I am just a viewer. You forget you are a famous artist. If you have a Picasso painting on the wall, you just go, fuck, that’s amazing. You don’t go, damn, he’s better than me. If you do you are poisoned, you’re corrupted. Art is not about that. It’s about loving art. The greatest artwork I’ve seen in a while is the banana taped to the wall by Cattelan. I love it.
Because it’s provocative. And you forget you can still do that today.
Has being wealthy changed your life?
Hopefully it changes your life for the better. I did an interview years ago in 1992 where I said, I don’t care about material possessions. I’m only going to have white walls, total minimalism, no possessions, and this is the way I want to live and I’m really excited by that. Now I am smothered in possessions and objects and things and it’s completely changed.
Do you worry about money?
No. Money’s a key that enables you to be able to access things and do things. It’s a great tool. I have had both. When I was younger, I had no money. To have money, you have to respect it. That’s the main thing.
Is it difficult to preserve the value of your work in the market?
You have to ignore it. If you don’t, if you start to try and do that, you’re bound to fail. It’s like how many people do you have to pay off to get your art into the right places. And if you start thinking like that, you’ve ruined it all.
Thank you very much for your time.
All images used by kind permission. Portrait of Damien Hirst © David Bailey, 2015
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