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My pupil Damien Hirst: Michael Craig-Martin on the making of art's wunderkind

As the Tate Gallery mounts a major retrospective of the superstar artist's work, Damien Hirst's former teacher Michael Craig-Martin describes the beginnings of a career that has redefined British art.

In 1987 I was at an opening at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery, when to my surprise I recognised the waiter serving me champagne – it was Damien Hirst. Still a first-year student at Goldsmiths, where I was one of his tutors, he had got himself a parttime stockroom job at the most important contemporary gallery in London.

Hirst is quick-witted, full of sharp observation and imaginative energy. He has the uncanny ability to go immediately to the centre of the issue. This makes secondary or peripheral concerns obvious for what they are. One sees the result of this ability in the visual economy and directness of his work, which often makes things look easy that are not.

He is, as one would expect, a perfectionist, giving absolute consideration to every detail of his work. He is an artist who sees the possibility of something and then sets out to make it happen. He knows how to organise and orchestrate large numbers of people and things. In this sense he is like a film director, a choreographer, an architect. Hirst always takes an overview, seeing things in relation to the larger picture. By working at d'Offay he gained an understanding of how the art world worked at that level.

Over the years, his ability to understand, tease, mock and exploit the art world has been one of his defining characteristics. As an artist, he takes the role of provocateur, playing with the art world's self-image, assumptions, pretentions and rituals.

His sensibility, humour, scepticism, bravado, stubbornness, naughtiness, romanticism and independence of mind mark him as a very British artist. This confident Britishness was evident in all the "Young British Artists". Hirst exemplified their uncompromising, high-risk attitude. In a country that had few contemporary galleries and even fewer collectors, generations of young artists had survived through art-school teaching, the dole, various enterprise schemes, odd jobs. By the end of Margaret Thatcher's reign, these options had more or less dried up.

I always find it laughable that people think that the YBAs were cynical careerists. Nothing could be further from the truth. They were full of youthful and innocent confidence and ambition. Their attitude, expressed in their work of that time, was the take-no-prisoners, hell-bent stance of those who genuinely have nothing to lose. The expectation of selling for more than a few hundred pounds was so low that they often made work that defied the idea of the market altogether.

What they didn't realise was that their defiance would be the very characteristic that would soon attract the market. They made work that was unmistakably British in content, but which spoke to the international art world with irreverent fluency.

Hirst said to me recently that he is now amazed by the risks he took in his early career. His first solo London show, In and Out of Love, held in a vacant shop off Bond Street in 1991, consisted of two sections, one called Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays and the other White Paintings and Live Butterflies. Black caterpillar pupae had been stuck randomly in the white paint of the latter, and there were rows of potted flowers along their bases. After several experiments, the opening had been precisely timed so that the pupae would hatch and the butterflies would emerge and fly off the paintings and down to the flowers as people watched. To encourage the hatching process and keep the butterflies alive, several large humidifiers pumped steamy hot damp air into the room, creating a tropical greenhouse atmosphere.

Amazingly, the butterflies hatched on schedule. As Hirst now acknowledges, if they hadn't, the anticlimax and loss of credibility might have jeopardised his whole subsequent career.

But it was several years earlier, when I visited the site of the show Freeze while the work was being hung, that I had fully realised the quality and ambition of Hirst's project. Freeze occurred in three parts over the summer months of 1988. Hirst had just completed the second year of a three-year undergraduate course. It was he who had found the grand, toplit, semi-derelict building in Docklands, organised its cleaning and preparation, chosen the artists, hung the works, and put together an invitation list that included virtually everyone involved in contemporary art in London.

Despite the youth of the artists, the most striking thing about the show was that it wasn't like a student exhibition at all. The work was more confident and sophisticated than one would expect from undergraduates and recent graduates. Each artist was highly individual and presented a number of accomplished works. There was a copper-covered, fully illustrated catalogue with a text by the head of Goldsmiths art history department. Hirst's instinct for public relations – sending taxis for important guests – was in high gear. But these things alone do not explain the show's importance or impact.

I believe that what Hirst had achieved was not just to bring its young participants to international attention, but to establish for himself and for them a clear sense of context, a realisation that they were part of something larger than just their individual selves: a common cause. This helps explain why every success that each experienced subsequently helped them all. Freeze felt fresh and exciting, announcing the arrival of a new and very different generation of artists, not afraid to assert themselves or willing to wait for an invitation to the table.

In the first part of Freeze, Hirst showed a group of boxes of various sizes painted in bright gloss colours and attached near the ceiling rafters like hornets' nests. In the third part he showed spot painting for the first time, the spots painted directly onto the wall. After Freeze closed, he went back to Goldsmiths to complete his BA course. His final degree show the following summer consisted of four of the first medicine cabinets. Not a bad achievement.

In 1990 Hirst helped Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman stage two more important group exhibitions – Modern Medicine and Gambler – in a warehouse called Building One. Both were memorable. In Freeze all the participants had been or were still students at Goldsmiths. Each of these later shows included new works by Hirst and some of those who had been in Freeze, but added work by other young artists, many of whom had attended different art schools. Hirst's instinct was always to expand what had been achieved by Freeze to include an ever-increasing number of artists, to make the circle bigger, not simply to consolidate the success of the original group. It was this generosity of spirit towards other artists that helped transform the London art world so completely. Within a couple of years, dozens and then hundreds of young artists were sharing in the new and exciting atmosphere of creative endeavour and opportunity that Hirst and his peers had initiated.

An extract from 'Damien Hirst', edited by Ann Gallagher, available from Tate Publishing for £24.99 (paperback) and £35 (hardback). The Damien Hirst exhibition is at Tate Modern, London SE1, 4 April to 9 September, sponsored by Qatar Museums Authority (www.tate.org.uk)

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' (1991)

A suspended 14-foot tiger shark in formaldehyde displayed in a glass tank became the iconic image of 1990s Brit Art. Damien Hirst became super-famous for his series of artworks in which dead animals were preserved in formaldehyde: 'Mother and Child Divided' (1993), is a cow and calf split between four tanks. 'Away from the Flock' (1994), is a white sheep suspended in a tank of formaldehyde.

A Thousand Years (1990)

This artwork contains an actual life-cycle. Maggots hatch inside a white box, turn into flies, then feed on a cow's severed head on the floor of a glass vitrine. It's the first example of one of Hirst's works where he arranged components in a glass vitrine – a year before the shark. Many flies are killed by an electric fly-trap hanging over the calf's head.

Spin paintings

The spin paintings, like the spot paintings, are made with household gloss paint. Each canvas is spun on a turntable while different coloured paints are poured onto the rotating canvas from above. In some works, the same form of motorised rotation used in their creation is incorporated into the way the painting is displayed, so that they continue to spin on the wall. Hirst started experimenting with spin paintings in 1992 in his studio in Brixton. The series began in 1994 when he was doing a German academic exchange in Berlin.

Butterfly paintings

In 1991, Hirst presented In and Out of Love, an installation for which he filled a gallery with hundreds of live tropical butterflies, some spawned from monochrome canvases on the wall. Other canvases, each painted a bright colour, had dead butterflies stuck to them. Hirst developed the butterfly theme in 2006 and 2007 when he began making huge works where thousands of butterflies were arranged in kaleidoscopic patterns that look like stained-glass windows.

For the Love of God (2007)

The platinum cast of an 18th-century skull features real human teeth and 8,601 diamonds. It has become one of the most widely recognised works of contemporary art. At the front of the cranium is a 52.4 carat pink diamond. It was first exhibited in 2007.

Medicine cabinets

Hirst's first medicine cabinet, 'Sinner' (1988), contains pharmaceutical packaging and related elements, including boxes of scalpels and white latex gloves. 'Lullaby, the Seasons' (2002) is four medicine cabinets, each one containing shelves with pills. His 2002 pill cabinet, 'Lullaby Spring', a three-metre-wide steel cabinet with 6,136 pills, sold for £19.6m to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of Qatar, in 2007. Later Hirst did cabinets full of cigarette butts – 'Dead Ends Died Out, Examined' (1993).

Spot paintings

The spot paintings consist of rows of randomly coloured circles, created by his assistants. They emerged from his attempts at, 'a structure where I could lay colour down, be in control of it, rather than it controlling me,' he said. More than 300 spot paintings were exhibited at the Gagosian show, The Complete Spot Paintings, earlier this year, from the first spot on board that Hirst created in 1986; to the most recent spot painting finished in 2011, containing 25,781 spots that are each 1mm in diameter.