The First Time I Saw Damien Hirst

A screenprint by Damien Hirst depicting a diamond-encrusted skull facing the viewer head-on, set against a black background.For The Love Of God, Wonder © Damien Hirst 2009
Jasper Tordoff

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Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst

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Pop Art authenticator Richard Polsky offers a personal recount of his initial encounters with the now-iconic works of Damien Hirst. Starting from a chance visit to the Cohen Gallery in New York in 1993, Polsky's narrative spans over a decade of Hirst's transformative journey in the art world. Rich with firsthand observations and reflections, Polsky not only charts the meteoric rise of Hirst from an unknown talent to a leading figure in contemporary art, but also provides a window into the shifting landscapes and dynamics of the art market.

Damien Hirst: First Encounters

In 1993, I was living in New York (an adventure which lasted all of eight months), when I visited the Cohen Gallery on Madison Avenue. The space was owned by the notorious Michel Cohen, who would eventually flee the country with $50 million in unpaid bills. In fact, Cohen became the subject of a documentary by Vanessa Engel, titled, The $50 Million Art Swindle. But at the time, Michel was just another dealer trying to make it in New York. I knew Michel from when we both lived in Los Angeles and shared a few meals and some laughs with him. Little did I know the fate that awaited him.

Michel arrived in New York with his girlfriend and business partner, the young ambitious British dealer Tanya Bonakdar. Moving to New York and opening a gallery had been her dream. She was tuned-in to the international art scene and was tracking the next wave of emerging painters, specifically the YBAs — and managed to forge a relationship with Damien Hirst. To Tanya Bonakdar’s credit, she recognized Hirst’s massive talent and invited him to exhibit at her new space.

I distinctly remember shaking my head and saying to Cohen, “Man, that’s an artist who’s never going to make it!”

That day, when I wandered into the Cohen Gallery, I saw a short muscular artist supervising a studio assistant kneeling on the floor. The assistant held a Dixie cup in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. He was busy painting small color circles onto a canvas — which resembled the old multi-color Dots candies which you peeled off a narrow sheet of white paper. I watched in fascination, trying to figure out what was going on.

At the time, Hirst was unknown in the United States. While Andy Warhol set the trend for collaborating with assistants to create his work, it was a tactic that was just starting to catch on. Thus, I registered my mild surprise when Michel Cohen told me about Hirst’s collaborative approach. The paintings, whose creation I observed that day, would become known as the famous “Spot Paintings”.

It was one of those head scratching moments. I thought, Why on earth did an unknown artist need to hire someone to create his pictures for him?

I distinctly remember shaking my head and saying to Cohen, “Man, that’s an artist who’s never going to make it!”

Gagosian Representation, Formaldehyde, and The Blockbuster Auction

A few years later, in 1996, I was visiting New York and making the rounds in SoHo, when I came upon Larry Gagosian’s new outpost on Wooster Street. I walked into the handsome space and was overwhelmed by what at first glance resembled a raucous carnival. It turned out that Hirst had moved on to bigger things; namely representation by Gagosian. While I don’t remember what hung on the walls, what stood out was an enormous round white fiberglass ashtray, that was filled with hundreds of real cigarette butts.

I was stunned and found the object oddly compelling. I then realized that this was the same Hirst that I had “written off” that day at the Cohen Gallery. I left Gagosian, wandered around a bit more, and felt the need to return to the gallery to see the show a second time — which confirmed in my mind that there was something to Hirst’s work — and that he just might be the real thing.

About a decade later, in 2006, I was in London for the auctions. This time, when I learned there was a major Hirst show at Gagosian, I immediately hailed a cab and went with the mindset that I was about to experience greatness; Damien didn’t disappoint.

The exhibition took on the quality of a museum show; works were beautifully spaced, perfectly lit, and there may have even been an exhibition catalogue. It was obvious that Damien Hirst had arrived. Only now, rather than one or two intriguing works, the room was filled with them. The stand-out was a large glass vitrine, which contained a freshly flayed cow’s head, titled A Thousand Years. The glass case was filled with hundreds of live flies. There was also a carpeting of dead flies at the bottom. I explored the piece and soon discovered how they had met their fate. As the flies buzzed about, they became fixated on the cow skull. On their way to their meal, they flew into an electric metal grill and were zapped by a grid of live wires. When a fly became barbecued, the grill emitted a buzzing sound and a bit of smoke. This work was both a true performance piece and a visual delight; I had never seen anything like it before or since.

It was good to be a billionaire - but maybe even better to be Damien Hirst.

In 2007, at yet another Gagosian spectacle, this time at his space in Beverly Hills, I viewed Damien Hirst’s recent butterfly paintings. Hirst and his factory of assistants had created paintings that resembled stained glass windows from hundreds of tropical butterfly wings. I was told he purchased the wings from butterfly farms which supplied scientific research labs.

Damien Hirst was now big time. He was only a year away from his stupefying £111.6 million “single artist” sale held at Sotheby’s during the onset of a worldwide recession. As I strolled through the Gagosian show, I couldn’t resist asking at the front desk how much the works cost. The attendant said, with a monotonous relish, “They’re all sold.” I rolled my eyes and managed to wheedle out of her that the largest pieces were in the $800,000 to $1,000,000 range.

Somehow, I overheard a discussion between two members of Gagosian’s staff. Apparently, the mega-collector Eli Broad was out of town when the show opened, forgot to “phone in his order,” and the show sold out. Mr. Broad was not pleased. But, hey, no problem. The gallery director placed a call to Damien at his London studio and convinced him (though she didn’t have to try too hard) to make two new large butterfly paintings specifically for the Eli and Edythe Broad Collection. It was good to be a billionaire - but maybe even better to be Damien Hirst.

Richard Polsky is the owner of Richard Polsky Art Authentication and Richard Polsky Art Fraud Prevention which specialise in authenticating the work of seven artists including: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Roy Lichtenstein.