Damien Hirst has a long history of doing it for himself and now he is opening an exhibition of more than 50 early works, many from his own collection, at his Newport Street Gallery in south London next week.
The exhibition, titled End of a Century (7 October to 7 March 2021), will include more than 50 installations, sculptures and paintings from the 1980s and 1990s, when Hirst came to fame as one of the Young British Artists (YBAs). Expect medicine cabinets, sharks pickled in formaldehyde and spot paintings.
“Showing my works from the 90s and before, so long ago! Makes me feel old—last century?” Hirst posted on Instagram beneath a picture of his mammoth sculpture, Hymn (1995-2005), being winched by crane into the gallery yesterday.
Examples from Hirst’s best-known bodies of work including his Natural History formaldehyde series are hotly anticipated. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity to see Damien’s early work, particularly for the next generation,” says Cheyenne Westphal, the chairman of Phillips auction house. “His art from the 1990s is groundbreaking, he was the trailblazer who really changed our art scene here in the UK.”
A number of works which have not been exhibited before are making an appearance, including Art's About Life, the Art World is About Money (1998), an auction house scene framed within a glass and steel case, and Up, Up and Away (1997), in which three ducks are suspended in formaldehyde. Early collages from the 1980s, inspired by the German artist Kurt Schwitters, are also going on show.
Newport Street Gallery was opened in 2015 specifically to share Hirst’s 3,000-strong collection with the public. The artist’s former chief curator, Hugh Allan, told the Guardian newspaper at the time that Hirst’s work would not go on show, although individual pieces by the former YBA have been included in group shows over the past few years.
This is Hirst’s first solo show at the gallery, however. A spokeswoman says: “Many visitors have requested to see Damien’s art and, during Covid-19, we decided to organise a show of Damien’s early works, some of which have not been seen before. The role of the gallery has not changed.”
The works are chiefly drawn from Hirst’s own collection, augmented by other private loans. None of the art is for sale, according to the Newport Street Gallery spokeswoman. “Damien Hirst’s collection isn’t really for sale, he has always kept that very separate,” Westphal says.
Hirst’s auction market has been patchy for the past decade, but, as Westphal points out, there have only been a “sprinkling of really important early works” that have come to market. Earlier this year, Phillips sold works from the collection of the London bond salesman Robert Tibbles, who was one of the first to buy a work by Hirst, including a pill cabinet for £600 in 1989, which sold for £1.4m with fees.
By contrast, Hirst’s private market appears in rude health. His enormous Venice exhibition, Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable, reportedly sold out in 2017 racking up £250m. The show, installed across Christie’s owner François Pinault’s museums, was heavily criticised, not only for being overblown, but also for masquerading as a showroom for oligarchs.
The Newport Street Gallery exhibition may not be for sale, but the publicity will no doubt benefit Hirst. As the author, art market journalist and editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper Georgina Adam says: “Damien Hirst has a well-trodden history of bypassing his dealers and selling straight to collectors, whether through exhibitions or at auction. Everything has a price.”