Snobs dismiss Damien Hirst, but he was the pop star of contemporary art

“Art’s popular,” Damien Hirst once said. “That’s my generation. It wasn’t before… Isn’t that an awesome thing?” Like a brilliant singer-songwriter, Hirst, always the most prominent of the YBAs, knows – or, at least, once did – how to produce a hit. 

His new exhibition, Natural History, the fourth instalment of his “takeover” of the Gagosian Gallery near King’s Cross, contains a bunch of his sensations, all taking the form of his sliced-and-diced pickled beasties, preserved for posterity in hefty, formaldehyde-filled stainless-steel tanks. During the Nineties, this sort of thing brought contemporary art to the masses.

A long, grey tiger shark, for instance, seems to glide through the main space, serenely exposing its teeth like a compliant patient opening wide. Nearby, another dorsal-finned man-eater, this time carved into three chunks, each presented in a separate container, appears – hey presto! – like a sawed-apart magician’s assistant. Neither specimen, in case you’re wondering, is the shark, i.e. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, commissioned by Charles Saatchi and created by Hirst in 1991. Reportedly, Saatchi sold that one, for at least $8 million, to the American hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen back in 2004.

Would he have got so much for it today? For all his rapid, prodigious success, Hirst is, within the art world, now considered something of an embarrassment, an old-timer to whom younger artists pay scant attention. Struck by the astonishing, visceral force of his early work, Lucian Freud once told him: “I think you started with the final act, my dear” – and, it’s true, for more than a decade now, he’s been floundering about, drifting into irrelevance.

Still, Natural History isn’t an exhibition of new work, but a presentation of 26 pieces spanning three decades, including a cluster from Hirst’s heyday, when he electrified British art. Paradoxically, then, this grisly visit to the abattoir is also a trip down memory lane.

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