Damien Hirst Reinvents Himself as Curator

The John Hoyland Estate, photo Prudence Cuming

The frontman of the British art world takes a backseat with the launch of the Newport Street Gallery—and gets everyone talking again.

Several years ago, artist and global brand Damien Hirst tried to set up a meeting with the Color Field painter John Hoyland, whose work he’s long admired and collected. The less famous Brit was unimpressed. “Then Dad rang me a few days before the meeting,” Hoyland’s son, Jeremy, now says Hirst with a laugh. “He goes, ‘So, I’ve been reading more about Damien—I think I may have underestimated him.’”

Hoyland died in 2011, but the artists’ initial discussion is finally bearing fruit. That’s because, after years of cultural recognition (sharks in formaldehyde!) and critical controversy (painting his own canvases!), Hirst thinks it’s time for us to reevaluate him as well. With an eye on his salad days promoting fellow Young British Artists at the groundbreaking 1988 show “Freeze,” Hirst is reinventing himself as a curator. His Newport Street Gallery—about five years in the making and opening this month in a half-dozen converted scenery studios in South London—will showcase works from his “Murderme” collection, a Who’s Who of contemporary art that includes Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, and plenty of taxidermy. Uncharacteristically, none of it is for sale.

Equally unexpected is the commercial juggernaut’s choice of the fairly uncommercial—and relatively unknown—Hoyland to inaugurate the space. (Hirst calls him “by far the greatest British abstract painter”; his son suggests you may not have heard of him because, not unlike his new champion, Hoyland “pissed a lot of people off.”) Where Hirst traffics in polished conceptual cynicism, Hoyland was a painter of raw emotive power. Yet his canvases, explosively colored and radiating a visceral immediacy, deliver the graphic gut punch of Hirst’s best works. “I don’t see a lot of obvious crossover in their methods,” Jeremy admits. “But both seek to shock the viewer into feeling.” Becoming an impresario might be Hirst’s best move in years: Having briefly cooled to him, the London art world can once again talk of little else. Just as we thought the notorious self-promoter had jumped the shark, he may well redeem the brand. “Power Stations” runs October 8 through April 3; newportstreetgallery.com.