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|Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
|Damien Hirst's work is not a good investment in the long run.
Although Hirst is British and the Art Market Guide is dedicated to American artists, the impulse to include him here is irresistible, so much has he become a vital part of the American art scene. It seems like Hirst has become an overnight success, and in many ways he has. Ever since his much-discussed Gagosian Gallery debut in 1996, Hirst has made his presence felt everywhere from art periodicals to art schools. But it wasn't until 1999 that Hirst began to have a big impact on the art market. Since May of that year, his track record at auction has been exemplary.
Then why is Damien Hirst rated a "sell?" Perhaps the following anecdote will shed some light on my theory. In September 2000, a one-quarter page advertisement appeared in The New York Times, offering limited edition Damien Hirst prints.
A closer inspection reveals that these were not "fine art" quality prints but mass-market poster-like editions of 500, with prices starting at $750. What's more, the company offering the prints, Eyestorm.com, further demeaned the work by including the following Hirst quote, "Working with Eyestorm, I can bring artworks to as broad an audience as possible, and offer work at prices which are attainable by more people than ever before."
If you read on, you were told that, if you acted quickly, you would receive absolutely FREE, a limited edition print of Hirst posed with a truncated head. The more I read, the more the advertisement sounded like a pitch for a Vegamatic -- be one of the first 50 to call and we'll send you a free Ginzu knife!
While some might deem it noble and democratic to offer affordable art to a wide audience, this approach has obvious problems. Not only does it make Hirst seem greedy (the ad pointed out he had just sold a work to Charles Saatchi for $1.5 million), but it also calls into question Hirst's taste. Insiders might say that Hirst is just having fun and making a statement about commerce and nature of the art market -- and that's precisely the problem. Damien Hirst's whole career is established on the premise, "anything to get attention."
Hirst's current New York show, on view at Gagosian in Chelsea, can only be described as a carnival. Without seeing it in person, it is almost impossible to imagine the level of extravagance to which the artist has gone. For example, the show includes a gigantic fish tank filled with live tropical fish along with a gynecologist's table and instruments. Also on view is a human skeleton, laid out on a glass cross, with rapidly rotating ping-pong balls held aloft on jets of air serving as eyes. Part of the circus does include one worthwhile effort, a long stainless steel cabinet, whose shelves are lined with 8,000 hand-crafted pills (price: $600,000).
Yet, the piece that ultimately convinced me that Hirst's work was all about materials and presentation was a tremendous vertical cabinet filled with anatomical models. On the surface, the cabinet resembles a handsome installation at a local science museum. However, the cabinet was so beautifully fabricated that if you stuck a dozen pineapples (or anything else) inside it, the finished piece would look equally impressive. What's more, right after seeing the Hirst show, I stopped for lunch at the new Hudson Cafeteria. As I looked up from my table, I noticed a tall cabinet that was filled with glass cylinders containing colorful grains -- a display that seemed to make the same point as the cabinet in the Hirst show.
The point is that Hirst is a master showman who has the funds to finance elaborate sculptures that are consciously designed to jolt and amuse the viewer. Based on the reactions to his Gagosian show, he succeeded wildly. In fact, the talk of the New York art world has been about Hirst and little else. Any time you get an audience discussing and debating the meaning of your work, you've obviously accomplished something. However, once you get beyond the circus atmosphere that pervaded his show, what are you left with? In this case, it appears to be work that is certainly clever but lacks depth. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I just don't see that Hirst's work is going to look significant 20 years down the road.
From a market standpoint, things couldn't be going better. The cover lot at Phillip's November sale, a diptych with actual tropical butterflies attached to the surfaces, sold for a record $750,500. Hirst's circle (pill) paintings, which his assistants paint in their entirety, also did well. While everyone who follows the Hirst market will tell you that the influential Charles Saatchi is one of his biggest collectors, you may wonder who the other buyers are. Given Saatchi's past influence on the market, it's a good bet that he's doing his best to make money on his Hirst investments. There's always a small chance that Saatchi is in it for the long haul, but if he dumps his Hirsts, who'll step in to fill the vacuum and absorb all this expensive work?
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at Polskyart@aol.com