Damien Steven Hirst born 7 June 1965, is an English artist, entrepreneur, and art collector. He is one of the Young British Artists (YBAs) who dominated the art scene in the UK during the 1990s. He is reportedly the United Kingdom’s richest living artist, with his wealth estimated at $384 million in the 2020 Sunday Times Rich List. During the 1990s his career was closely linked with the collector Charles Saatchi, but increasing frictions came to a head in 2003 and the relationship ended.
Death is a central theme in Hirst’s works. He became famous for a series of artworks in which dead animals (including a shark, a sheep and a cow) are preserved, sometimes having been dissected, in formaldehyde. The best-known of these was The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a 14-foot (4.3 m) tiger shark immersed in formaldehyde in a clear display case. He has also made “spin paintings”, created on a spinning circular surface, and “spot paintings”, which are rows of randomly coloured circles created by his assistants.
In September 2008, Hirst made an unprecedented move for a living artist by selling a complete show, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, at Sotheby’s by auction and bypassing his long-standing galleries. The auction raised £111 million ($198 million), breaking the record for a one-artist auction as well as Hirst’s own record with £10.3 million for The Golden Calf, an animal with 18-carat gold horns and hooves, preserved in formaldehyde.
In several instances since 1999, Hirst’s works have been challenged and contested as plagiarised. In one instance, after his sculpture Hymn was found to be closely based on a child’s toy, legal proceedings led to an out-of-court settlement.
Hirst was born Damien Steven Brennan in Bristol and grew up in Leeds. He never met his father; his mother married his stepfather when Hirst was two, and the couple divorced 10 years later. His stepfather was reportedly a motor mechanic. Hirst’s mother, who was from an Irish Jewish background, worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau, and has stated that she lost control of her son when he was young. He was arrested on two occasions for shoplifting. However, Hirst sees her as someone who would not tolerate rebellion: she cut up his bondage trousers and heated one of his Sex Pistols vinyl records on the cooker to turn it into a fruit bowl (or a plant pot). He says, “If she didn’t like how I was dressed, she would quickly take me away from the bus stop.” She did, though, encourage his liking for drawing, which was his only successful educational subject.
His art teacher at Allerton Grange School “pleaded” for Hirst to be allowed to enter the sixth form, where he took two A-levels, achieving an “E” grade in art. He was refused admission to Jacob Kramer College when he first applied, but attended the art school after a subsequent successful application to the Foundation Diploma course.
He went to an exhibition of work by Francis Davison, staged by Julian Spalding at the Hayward Gallery in 1983. Davison created abstract collages from torn and cut coloured paper which, Hirst said, “blew me away”, and which he modelled his own work on for the next two years.
He worked for two years on London building sites, then studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths College (1986–89), although again he was refused a place the first time he applied. In 2007, Hirst was quoted as saying of An Oak Tree by Goldsmiths’ senior tutor, Michael Craig-Martin: “That piece is, I think, the greatest piece of conceptual sculpture. I still can’t get it out of my head.” While a student, Hirst had a placement at a mortuary, an experience that influenced his later themes and materials.
In July 1988, in his second year at Goldsmiths College, Hirst was the main organiser of an independent student exhibition, Freeze, in a disused London Port Authority administrative block in London’s Docklands. He gained sponsorship for this event from the London Docklands Development Corporation. The show was visited by Charles Saatchi, Norman Rosenthal and Nicholas Serota, thanks to the influence of his Goldsmiths lecturer Michael Craig-Martin. Hirst’s own contribution to the show consisted of a cluster of cardboard boxes painted with household paint. After graduating, Hirst was included in New Contemporaries show and in a group show at Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge. Seeking a gallery dealer, he first approached Karsten Schubert, but was turned down.
Hirst, along with his friend Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman, curated two enterprising “warehouse” shows in 1990, Modern Medicine and Gambler, in a Bermondsey former Peek Freans biscuit factory they designated “Building One”. Saatchi arrived at the second show in a green Rolls Royce and, according to Freedman, stood open-mouthed with astonishment in front of (and then bought) Hirst’s first major “animal” installation, A Thousand Years, consisting of a large glass case containing maggots and flies feeding on a rotting cow’s head. They also staged Michael Landy’s Market. At this time, Hirst said, “I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say ‘f off’. But after a while you can get away with things.”