High and Dry

New York

Left: The crowd at Matthew Marks. Right: Larry Gagosian and Damien Hirst. (Photo: Patrick McMullan/PMc)

How many of the seemingly thousands of art-world revelers drinking to Damien Hirst on the Lever House terrace Friday night knew that what they were really celebrating was the end of art? At least that’s how it felt on West Twenty-fourth Street, where Gagosian presented Hirst's first show in New York since the former YBA gave up the bottle for more sober pursuits. Like painting. Executed in photo-realist style from pictures in magazines and print ads, the thirty variously sized works on view depicted Hirst's familiar fascinations with soul-killing violence and living death. One painting showed a lab animal discovering what it feels like to have a syringe poked in your eye. Others included an autopsy room, candylike pills, pill packages, a crack smoker, a suicide bombing, otherworldly quartz crystals, and precious pastel dots. Though many guests made the connection, Hirst may have thought he was avoiding comparisons to Jeff Koons by ordering hired hands to paint each piece in this chilling body of work rather badly. (One assistant was reportedly fired for painting too well.)

While those curious for a first look at what temperance had wrought formed a line outside that stretched halfway down the block, the more-privileged folk within the gargantuan gallery wandered about looking perplexed. Seasoned critics passed by with mouths agape, and Samuel Keller, the generally genial director of Art Basel, peered closely at one of several pill pictures, murmuring, “I don't know, I don't know.” Hirst, in rose-colored glasses and a jacket with a large skull painted on the back, kept to the back office with a gaggle of friends, followers, and a few collectors hoping to be chosen to pay up to $2 million for a canvas. Gallery reps from London, New York, and Los Angeles sidled past each other whispering bon mots like, “If your guy decides not to take it, my guy is definitely in.” One gallery director, when asked about the delicate politics of favoring one collector over another, replied, “My whole job is keeping clients from knowing how ugly it really gets.” (Only days before, of course, a New York court had awarded collector Jean-Pierre Lehmann a $1.7 million judgment against dealer Christian Haye for consistently leaving Lehmann out in the cold.) If rumor can be believed, Gagosian sold out Hirst's show for somewhere between $18 million and $20 million to cats fat enough to make snap judgments.

At these prices, it's difficult to understand how paintings that are not going to get any better with time can continue to acquire value. Though truth be elusive, let's just say that that is exactly Hirst's point: to empty art of meaning. In a market where money is so disposable, how can art transcend mere currency to become more than just a brand? If this is indeed Hirst’s message, then he has issued a galling challenge to every other living artist. It will be interesting to see who takes it up.

Left: Georgie Hopton. Middle: Martin Creed's band. Right: Gary Hume.

Meanwhile, down the street at Matthew Marks, life went on as if nothing were amiss. Hirst's fellow former YBA Gary Hume had several reasons to be cheerful as a crowd of stellar contemporaries sashayed among his shiny new snowmen (some the colors of Hirst's pills) and even shinier poured enamels on aluminum punctuated by oily black paintings of exclamation points. “That one is really creepy,” fellow Marksist Brice Marden said of Yellowstone National Painting, 2004, a large brown-and-yellow number. Hume liked that very much. “I know,” he said.

At the dinner, with Terry Winters, Sean Landers, Lisa Yuskavage, Nicola Tyson, Francesco Vezzoli, Rachel Feinstein and Hume's petite powerhouse of a wife, artist Georgie Hopton, in attendance, Andrea Rosen greeted John Currin with a warmth that was surprising, at least until it was whispered that Rosen had just sold a Currin painting in her inventory for well over a mil. (Is it true? Does it matter?)

As word filtered down from Park Avenue that the Hirst party had turned into an intensely British “art-fuck” fueled by a DJ imported from Leeds, half of Hume's company departed for Lever House, while other guests drifted south to Greenwich Street and dealer Gavin Brown's apartment-above-the-store to catch a command performance by Martin Creed. With his new trio, consisting of himself and two women on bass guitar and drums, Creed wowed the attentive crowd pressed against the kitchen stage, where the front rows were filled by curators Phillipe Vergne and Matthew Higgs and gallery artists Elizabeth Peyton, Rob Pruitt, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Creed ended the set with the act's dependably rousing finale, “1 to 100,” followed by the equally infectious encore, “101 to 200.” Quite a night for Brits who count. And they wonder why we hate them.

Back uptown, a small group of youths gathered around Lever House owner Aby Rosen's newest acquisition, Hirst's thirty-five-foot-tall pregnant Madonna (or “The Virgin Mother”), installed on the building’s Park Avenue plaza. Staring at her animal-skull head and the fetus dangling from her exposed abdomen, one asked, “What does it mean?” His friend was quick to answer: “It's art, man.” Hirst could not have said it better.

Left: The line outside of Gagosian. Middle: Hirst's sculpture at the Lever House. Right: Cecily Brown and Damien Hirst. (All remaining photos: Patrick McMullan/PMc)

Left: Lou Reed, Damien Hirst, and Julian Schnabel. Right: Gina Gershon and Jim Jarmusch.

Left: Emmanuel Perrotin and Jay Jopling. Middle: DJ Jeremy Healy. Right: Aby Rosen.