If Jopling hadn't existed he would undoubtedly have been invented. Over the past seven years, Jopling has built up the most impressive operation in London. His artists include two Turner Prize winners, Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst, Turner Prize nominee Mona Hatoum and such young mavericks as Marc Quinn, Gavin Turk and Sam Taylor-Wood. At the age of 32, he is now the key power-broker in contemporary British art, travelling the globe to spread the good news. But is he really the evangelist of the British New Wave, or merely an opportunist with an eye for a good story and a fast buck?
Jopling is an easy target for the cynics. The son of Michael Jopling MP, Mrs Thatcher's Chief Whip, Jeremy "Jay" Jopling was educated at Eton and Edinburgh University, where he read History of Art. While there, with an early eye for the main chance, he helped organise a charity auction for Save the Children. In search of lots for "New Art, New World", Jopling travelled to New York, where he charmed his way into galleries and studios and persuaded, among others, Julien Schnabel, Claes Oldenburg, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat to donate works. That was in 1985. A year later, having ridden high on the success of his venture, Jopling began to deal. It came naturally. The family business was real estate, and Eton had equipped him with the capacity to appear to be all things to all men.
Although Jopling first chose to deal in Minimalists such as Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, it was a short step to finding contemporary British artists - the first being Marc Quinn (he of the blood heads) in 1988, quickly followed in 1990 by Damien Hirst. According to this reading, Jopling astutely exploited the sensational nature of his artists' work to make a big splash in the tabloids.
Certainly, a number of his artists, even now, deal extensively with sex and sexuality, their every work providing several possibilities for suitably lurid headlines. Jopling, say his detractors, milks this for all it's worth and revels in the legends already attached to his name: that he and Hirst met in a pub brawl; that Marc Quinn financed his early work by finding an emerald in the back of a taxi; that Hirst's lover and the mother of his child is Jopling's ex-girlfriend.
Jopling knows the workings of the media and with Hirst deliberately frequents such favoured watering holes as the Groucho Club. Here and in its New York equivalents, at private views, exclusive dinners and parties for the Tate's Patrons of New Art of which he is on the committee, Jopling "works the room" with a consummate ease bred by Eton and honed in Manhattan, cruising lizard-like between collectors, artists and fellow dealers. Back in London, behind the big desk in White Cube, his slick and squeaky-clean St James's gallery, with its suitably Wittgensteinian name, Jopling certainly looks the part. At 6ft 3in, in sharp John Pearse suit, Joe 90 glasses and cropped black hair, he's a Sixties retro-cross between Michael Caine's Harry Palmer and the young Kasmin. Ultimately, say the detractors, it's all a facade, and if Hirst is the charlatan we know him to be, surely his dealer must be an even greater fraud.
Others tell a different story. The alternative Jopling is a man with a mission. This is the Jopling whose Edinburgh charity auction - which raised pounds 500,000 for Save the Children in the same year as Band Aid - included not only Minimalist works but paintings by such mainstream British artists as Peter Blake, Bridget Riley and Patrick Procktor. This is the Jopling who began to buy and sell American Minimalists only to finance his ultimate goal of being able to support young contemporary British artists. Long before White Cube, Jopling was dealing from his home in Brixton, sticking by Marc Quinn during the wilderness years and organising shows of new and unfamiliar art in large temporary spaces.
Even now he describes his gallery as a "temporary project room" and sees its presence in St James's among the Old Master dealers as a means of "establishing a bridge between attitudes - between the establishment and the avant-garde. The establishment still holds the reins, but youth culture has a tremendously strong voice. This gallery is a platform where the people who matter can see the artists who matter - the artists I represent."
Jopling is famously attentive to the needs of his artists, without being over-protective. He will consult with them on a daily basis over sales and forthcoming shows and is happier to take advice than to give it. Hirst enthuses how "fantastically closely" he works with his dealer, and praises Jopling's commitment not only as a middleman but also as a friend and a mentor. Significantly, their first encounter was not a formal business meeting but over a pint in a pub after a private view. Both lived in Brixton and as the barriers of privilege and status dissolved through their mutual support for Leeds United, the bond was formed.
Although Hirst had already sold A Thousand Years (the maggots) to Charles Saatchi and staged his important exhibition "Freeze", he had reached an impasse. He needed Jopling, who had the skill necessary to finance the projects he had on his mind, such as suspending a shark in formaldehyde - which cost some pounds 50,000 to make. Jopling is aware that the art of ideas has to be presented with maximum precision and attention to detail. It also requires explanation, and to this end he works hard for his artists, constantly networking and travelling the world - probably, he reckons, some six months a year are spent on the road, cultivating relationships with collectors and, more importantly, with museum directors.
Jopling professes to take the long-term view. "It's important," he says, "to look at the impact of the work one is showing now in, say, 50 or 100 years time. The best art has to stand the test of time. It's vital for British art to be promoted internationally." With this in mind he also frequents the better international art fairs - "we do Cologne, Basle and Chicago". Finally, though, it seems as if British buyers are beginning to open their eyes. "When I started," he says, "some 70 or 80 per cent of buyers were foreign collectors. Now that figure is something like 60 per cent." It's hard to argue with such statistics, which are indicative in themselves of Jopling's own impact upon the taste of the British public. He has undoubtedly played a pivotal part in the transformation of young British artists into an internationally important force. Jopling is at pains to emphasise his commitment to youth culture, scouring the colleges for new talent. "I keep my eyes open all the time. I get about 30 to 40 sets of slides every week and I'll go and see literally anything that interests me."
What interests Jopling is invariably what also interests his artists, and that they share the same mind set is one of the secrets of his success. It's not just that they have the same artistic taste; it's Jopling's public school ladishness that has helped him get to the top. Equally at home with Leeds United and Le Witt, Jopling is the epitome of that streetwise Nineties hip that permeates contemporary British pop culture and mirrors the dreams of an earlier generation.
It is not only Jopling's appearance that echoes the Sixties. His faith in his artists and their message, although now altogether more knowing, recalls the commitment of the late Robert Fraser, the dealer who, more than any other, symbolised British Pop Art, and who introduced Peter Blake to the Beatles. (Significantly, Hirst recently made a video for Blur.) Effectively, although some inevitably dismiss him as a cynical manipulator, Jopling, with his dynamic, open-minded approach and unshakeable belief in his artists' credo, has re-introduced to his profession something of its early 20th-century character. He is, he says, engagingly, "privileged to be part of the London art scene at this time".
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