Damien Hirst is remarkably buoyant for an artist whose latest show was described as “the shipwreck of his career”. Breezing into his very own museum, Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall, south London, the man famous for making a fortune from pickled sharks is as colourful as one of his spot paintings. A sporty yellow jacket over bright red-and-blue cashmere: it’s a punchy, hipster look for a 52-year-old.
Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Hirst’s vast exhibit of 189 works spread over two of Venice’s grandest galleries, has just closed.
Ten years and about £50m of Hirst’s own money in the making, the exhibition invited prospective collectors to buy into the most expensive “fake news” show ever staged. Given the term hadn’t even been coined when he came up with the concept, it was remarkably prescient. That ability to read the future is perhaps his superpower; long before the hedge-funders piled into art as the ultimate commodity, Hirst was playing around with the links between art and money. It was almost to prove his undoing.
These latest works were “said to derive” from the lost treasures of Cif Amotan II, an imaginary 2nd-century freed slave, who amassed a dazzling hoard of sculptures and religious relics that were lost at sea and “discovered” off the east African coast in 2008. Visitors were asked to suspend their disbelief about the origins of the coral-encrusted marbles, bronzes and gold treasures “pulled from the sea” by Hirst’s personal shipwreck-recovery team. His private joke was barely disguised; Cif Amotan II is an anagram for “I am a fiction”. Prices ranged from £150,000 to more than £3m.
The reviews were Marmite, which is just how he likes them. One dismissed it as a “spectacular, bloated folly” that should be dumped “to the bottom of the sea”. Our own critic, Waldemar Januszczak, was enthused, calling it “the most ambitious solo exhibition any artist has ever mounted”. Hirst would rather divide than unite the critics: “I only ever did one show where I got slagged off and I agreed with it and felt terrible [the Elusive Truth exhibition in New York, 2005]. I think you’ve got to be in a strong position to deal with the barrage of negative press.” Surely the cushion of his £270m fortune helps? “Is that a lot?” he grins.
The show came with a large dollop of self-parody, the legendary former slave Cif described as “bloated by excess wealth”. A note to self? “I think so,” he says, fiddling with rose-gold chains around his neck. I can’t help admiring his emerald and diamond knuckle-dusters. Immediately, he whips them off and lets me try them on. He is all bonhomie, wisecracks and lightning wit.
Hirst says the Treasures show was his attempt to take a “sidestep from the gallery system”, where, for more than 20 years, he constantly fed the booming contemporary art market during the 1990s and 2000s. “When I was a student, I had this idea of creating an artist that was like a machine. So, the spot paintings, the spins, the butterflies — I created these endless series, like being immortal. I was just gonna always make these paintings and never die.”
It may have been a noble idea, but to many the factory churn grated. When, in 2012, his dealer Larry Gagosian showcased nothing but his spot paintings in all 11 of his galleries, one critic observed: “We hate this shit. Everyone hates this shit. These spots reflect nothing about how we live, see, or think, they’re just some weird meme for the impossibly rich.” Hirst concedes the work morphed into something he began to loathe: “They fit the market brilliantly, but then I created this market where they were just buying, selling, and it felt like there was no enjoyment of the art. It was about trading paintings rather than looking at them. I was giving friends gifts and they were selling them. People were selling them to buy handbags. When the market went a bit wobbly and they couldn’t sell as easily, people were, like, ‘What am I gonna do with my Hirst now?’, and I was thinking, ‘Stick it on your wall?’ ”
The slow burn of Treasures got the galleries off his back. “I thought, ‘Once I have a 10-year plan, they won’t want to know.’ I remember explaining it and they were, like, ‘When can you show it? Ten years? Have you got anything else?’ — and they leave you alone.”
Hirst says that “after the auction” he needed time to recover. In 2008, weeks before the global financial crisis reached its peak, an epic two-day Sotheby’s sale of more than 200 Hirst works spanning his 20-year career raised £111m. Entitled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, it set a record for a one-artist auction. One critic claimed that in just 48 hours, Hirst had earned more money than all the artists exhibited in the National Gallery did in a lifetime. “I couldn’t really process it at the time. When they were giving me the number of what things were signing off for, I was saying, ‘Is that the right amount?’ I just couldn’t focus on it. I thought, ‘If I’ve made more than da Vinci, something’s wrong.’
“There was the temptation to think I’m a great artist, to think everything I make sells for huge sums and you want to think it’s got nothing to do with the world. But I remember thinking at the time that something’s not right. There was so much money around from the hedge fund guys, and when the market had that stumble after the auction, that was the real market. Artists just want to paint, even though I do think about a lot more things beyond.” Does he mean he thinks about money? “I don’t think you can make art without considering it”.
He certainly considers it, a lot. Through his Other Criteria company, Hirst has expanded into the cheaper end of the market with endless limited-edition prints and art books. There are also Hirst restaurants, jewellery, even collaborations with Lalique crystal. Has he sold his artistic soul? “I wanted to make art affordable,” he insists. “At an opening, people come up and say, ‘I’ve got seven pieces of yours — the spot print, the diamond skull print, the butterfly print.’ They’re exactly the same as [those owned by] massive collectors. As an artist, you want to go across the whole range.”
But are things really going so well? Earlier this year he closed the Other Criteria shops in Devon and New York, and shut several of his UK companies. He has also parted with his business manager, James Kelly. Has the Hirst ship hit troubled waters? No, he insists. Treasures is selling well. “We’ve already sold double what the auction made,” he says. Double? According to Hirst, Treasures has already made £250m in sales. But what of the changes in his team? He says Kelly left for health reasons and “once he left, we shut all the dormant companies, got rid of anything we didn’t need. I closed Other Criteria, but it’s still online. It’s a small percentage of the business, but takes up a big percentage of my employees’ and my time. I wanted to draw it back to the core of what it was.”
And what of Toddington Manor, the 300-room, grade I listed, dilapidated 19th-century pile in Gloucestershire that he bought in 2005 for £3m, with grand plans to renovate it with English Heritage as a museum for his own works and as a “weekend home”?
It is currently languishing under scaffolding, and he admits it is on the back burner .“I’m looking for cash at the moment. I had that idea [Toddington] in the boom time, when there was lots of cash everywhere. And then I kind of stopped everything for Newport Street. Then I bought the house in London that I’m looking at doing, which is quite a big one.” He paid £39.5m for the house overlooking Regent’s Park.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘I’ll finish every project by the time I’m 50.’ Now I’m 52 and I’m, like, ‘Oh.’ ”
Hirst tells me he has just this month bought a studio space in Soho, and he also ploughed £25m into the Newport Street Gallery ahead of its opening in 2015. A free public museum, it exhibits pieces from his personal Murderme collection of 3,000 works by artists including Banksy, Picasso, Francis Bacon and Tracey Emin.
The gallery is also home to Pharmacy 2, a revamped version of his former restaurant in Notting Hill, the scene of much of the cocaine- and booze-fuelled hedonism that surrounded Hirst and his crew back in the day.
Born in Bristol and raised in Leeds, Hirst studied at Goldsmiths college in London. While still a student, he curated the now infamous 1988 Freeze exhibition in an abandoned warehouse in Docklands, showing his work alongside Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume and several others.
They became known as the Young British Artists (YBAs). A Turner prize win in 1995 and two decades of hard partying followed. “I celebrated for 20 years, had a really good run. Twenty years of drinking continuously felt amazing,” he laughs, remembering a particularly wild night with Keith Allen and Robbie Williams at the Groucho Club. But he admits that, much of the time, he was “out of my mind and a complete dick”.
He tried to give it all up in 2002, but “kept relapsing”. He has been sober since 2006, and with sobriety come twinges of cringe at his former inebriated alter ego. “I remember talking to [the film director] Rob Altman and his wife at a party. People took loads of cocaine, it was probably falling out of my nose, and I was thinking they loved me. Years later, I’m sober and thinking, ‘Oh no, one of those nightmare idiot babblers.’ ”
What triggered the change? “It had just stopped becoming fun and became a habit. I was waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘I’ve got to drink, I feel so shit.’ It wasn’t a drink to celebrate, it was escaping. Also, I was a dad, getting in a mess with that.” Hirst has three sons with his ex-partner Maia Norman: Connor, 22, Cassius, 17, and Cyrus, 12.
“I remember there was a story where I got my c*** out in a bar in Dublin, and thinking, ‘I’m gonna go to court over this and I don’t give a f***.’ Then Maia said, ‘What about the kids?’ ”
We meet amid the wave of sexual harassment claims against powerful men. What does he make of it all? “Times change, so it’s difficult to know what’s acceptable and what’s not. The laws are pretty clear, aren’t they? With minors, it’s bad. I don’t know, two consenting adults? With Harvey Weinstein, it’s just a sad fact of human nature. People in positions of power abuse people with dreams to follow.”
With the hindsight of sobriety, does he feel he may have ever overstepped the mark? “I hope not,” he says. “When you’re drinking, you have periods that you can’t remember, but nothing like that. A friend said to me the thing about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll is a myth, because if you focus on one it’s at the expense of the other two. I was drinking too much to really get into a lot of anything else.”
Anyone in his life now? “Not that I want to talk about.” The shutters come firmly down. It has been reported that he recently split from the writer and producer Katie Keight, 27, whom he met at a party hosted by Weinstein in 2014.
Booze blackouts are a thing of the past for Hirst, who is now a bit of a gym bunny. “I love yoga. I started three years ago and do it a few times a week.” He’ll be drinking green juices next. “I don’t know about that,” he laughs. “I tried a bit of gluten-free, but it didn’t work. I like a KFC too.”
Hirst clearly takes pride in his role as father to three sons, who live with him in Richmond. He and Maia, who lived together in Devon before splitting five years ago, maintain a good relationship, despite the fact he was reported to be “devastated” when she left him after nearly two decades for Tim Spicer, a former British Army officer.
“When we broke up, I was the one taking care of that side of things. Maia was leaving me, leaving the family home, off travelling and doing her own thing. Connor was going to school in London, so I just made a decision: ‘I’m moving near the school.’ ” Cassius and Cyrus are privately schooled at the Harrodian School in west London, and Hirst says their mum recently moved to be nearer them. “They go to her two nights a week. I just say, ‘Whenever you want to see them, you work it out.’ I’ve a nanny and a teacher to do their homework with them.”
It can’t always be easy, having a household name as your dad. Hirst says that Connor was accepted at his alma mater, Goldsmiths, to read film and English, but has deferred until next year. “It’s really good he took time out, because he was struggling with it. He thought, ‘I don’t really want to go to the college my dad went to.’ ”
Hirst was concerned a few years ago during a chat with his youngest. “Cyrus came up to me and said, ‘Dad, when I’m older I want to be like you, I want to be famous.’ And I remember thinking that’s a bit of a weird one — fame is a by-product, not a goal. So I remember having conversations with him about that.” Did he understand the difference afterwards? “I think he did.”
Homework is non-negotiable, but they have as much screen time as they like. “I’ve always encouraged them because my mum wouldn’t let me watch The Sweeney when I was in school. I’ve got a huge TV and I push them — ‘Play video games, you need to do it.’ Trick is, they get bored. If you let it go, they censor themselves.”
When talking about his boys, Brexit bothers him. He is “more horrified by Brexit” than by President Trump. A firm Remainer, Hirst, who shies away from political art because “you don’t want the art to get lost in the mess”, made an exception for the referendum, producing “In” butterfly posters.
“It [Europe] is about freedom, flexibility, being able to travel,” he says. “I feel sad that my children won’t have that kind of access and sad we would limit our options in that way. It doesn’t make any sense. But it’s not really the people of Britain, is it? To choose something as small-minded as that. A lot of young people didn’t vote.”
However Brexit goes, and even if Corbyn comes to power and hikes up his taxes, Hirst won’t hotfoot it to one of his many holiday homes. “It would take a lot to move me. Everyone likes to moan about tax, but you’ve just got to pay them, haven’t you? I like being British and I’ve loved being a British artist.”
Yet he winces at the YBA moniker. “I hate it. I’d prefer it to be BBA — Bad British Artist.” Why? “By the time it becomes stuck, you’re an OAP, but you still get called a YBA.” He’s not a fan of having any other letters after his name, either. He lets slip that he has been offered a gong, but turned it down without a second thought. He thinks it was a CBE. “It was a few years ago, but I don’t think it was made public. I don’t really like that stuff. I got where I was going by myself. The letters after your name thing just feels a bit uncool.”
Hirst has been invited to meet the Queen on other occasions. “I wouldn’t go. Too scary, isn’t it? Though I’d quite like a royal warrant. William and Harry, they’re good boys. We should get them buying contemporary art.” Maybe he could send a Hirst original as a royal wedding gift? “Who’s getting married?” he asks, 24 hours after blanket news coverage of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle. He is blissfully unaware. “Maybe I’ll send that,” he says, motioning to a purple butterfly painting on the wall of his restaurant.
Hirst can’t fathom the thought of retirement any time soon, but having passed his half-century marker, finds himself in a reflective mood. One thing that has dawned on him as he looks backwards and forwards, is that less is more: “As you get older, you want your life to become simpler.” For now.