The Lives of Artists – Damien Hirst

The New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins describes the surprising, family side of Hirst during his ‘90s heyday
Damien Hirst; still image from the 2010 documentary The Future of Art. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Damien Hirst; still image from the 2010 documentary The Future of Art. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you want to know what it’s like to be in the presence of important and groundbreaking artists, you should really ask Calvin Tomkins. Over the past 59 years, Tomkins has profiled almost every culturally significant figure in the contemporary art world for The New Yorker magazine.

Our new six-volume anthology of his work, The Lives of Artists, brings these profiles together. There are many delightful long reads in there, but there are also moments when, in just a few finely chiselled sentences, Tomkins describes the range of impressions and emotions one might experience meeting an artist for the first time, face-to-face. Consider this description of Damien Hirst in London during the late 1990s. 


Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett
Calvin Tomkins photo by Sara Barrett

“Damien had not gone to bed at all that night but had moved on from Pharmacy to the Groucho and several other drinking clubs with [Hirst’s girlfriend] Maia and Mary Brennan, his mother, who lives in a cottage adjoining their Devon house and helps look after [Hirst’s son] Connor, and who doesn’t at all mind staying up late when she comes to London. After dropping Mary and Maia off around 3 a.m., at a houseboat on the Thames which is now their London living quarters, Damien had continued on his own, God knows where. By the time he showed up for the anniversary lunch at Pharmacy, around two the next afternoon, he looked pretty wasted—unshaved, clothes rumpled, eyes half shut. He had a few drinks, sambucas and Ricard pastis. (Damien likes to mix things up, alcoholically.) He wasn’t being coherent, but this didn’t interfere with the carnival of affection that surrounded him the minute he arrived—friends and near-friends coming over to hug him, friends’ children pulling on his arm and spilling his drink, rock musicians shouting at him across the big, bright room whose high-style décor includes several butterfly paintings, a large plastic sculpture representing an atomic structure, colorful wallpaper reproducing pharmaceutical compounds from a drug encyclopedia, and, on the stairs, dangling human skeletons and four huge pharmacist’s jars filled with colored liquids.


The Lives of Artists

”During the next three hours, as Damien continued to order, spill, and consume various alcoholic beverages, I was surprised to note that he became progressively more alert and articulate. We were scheduled to catch a six-o’clock train to Devon from Paddington Station. Long after I had given up hope that this might happen, at about five-forty-five, Damien rounded up Connor and Mary Brennan, went outside in the rain, found a taxi, and got us all to Paddington with three minutes to spare. As he walked to the train platform, carrying an exhausted Connor on his shoulders and holding his nice, cheery mum by the hand, he looked like the sort of family man you could really depend on.”

You can literally pore over the nuances of that picture, can’t you? So precise is the detailing. For more encounters like this order a copy of The Lives of Artists here. This six-volume set includes 82 of Tomkins's most significant profiles dating from 1962 to 2019. Part art history, part human interest, Tomkins offers insights and observations about the artists, their work, and the ever-changing art world they inhabit. Buy The Lives of Artists here.

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