Damien Hirst: A brush with Mr Hirst

Damien Hirst painting in oils? Not a shark in sight? The artist's latest show, opening in New York today, will shock the critics - again. He talks to Martin Gayford
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At six o'clock in the evening, Damien Hirst's south-London studio is full of activity. It is a big, industrial space in a workaday street in a quiet part of town. The walls are covered by huge, almost - but not quite - hyper- realist paintings. Beside each picture is taped the photograph or postcard from which it is derived. All the flat surfaces in the room are covered with brushes, paints and bottles of turps. It all looks very much like an old-style artist's workshop - an environment that would be recognisable to Peter Paul Rubens (except perhaps for the Muddy Waters tape playing in the background).

At six o'clock in the evening, Damien Hirst's south-London studio is full of activity. It is a big, industrial space in a workaday street in a quiet part of town. The walls are covered by huge, almost - but not quite - hyper- realist paintings. Beside each picture is taped the photograph or postcard from which it is derived. All the flat surfaces in the room are covered with brushes, paints and bottles of turps. It all looks very much like an old-style artist's workshop - an environment that would be recognisable to Peter Paul Rubens (except perhaps for the Muddy Waters tape playing in the background).

One assistant is at work on a painting of the shocking anti-drugs advertisement representing the accelerated decline of a young female crack-addict into emaciated senility. Others are busy with other projects - a painting of a man bleeding profusely from the face, slices of brain on plates in a laboratory, crystals floating in space, a series on the aftermath of a suicide bomb (a bit like an altarpiece of martyrdom, that one).

Hirst himself is talking into a mobile phone and striding about. A large consignment of take-away falafels has been ordered. These turn out to be a delicious but extremely messy delicacy. Hirst first distributes the falafels and then, thoughtfully, towels. It is obviously going to be a long night, the latest in a series of long nights.

For more than three years now, Hirst has been working secretly on this new body of work - some 30 paintings unlike anything he has done before, and not quite like anything anyone else has done, either. From a distance they look like photo-realism: from close up, they do not. In fact, they have all been executed by Hirst and his assistants, using oil paint and brushes. It's an unexpected - not to say sensational - move for Hirst to make.

He has, of course, become hugely famous over the past 15 years largely by producing three-dimensional objects - the best-known being the shark in formaldehyde that was recently sold by Charles Saatchi for nearly £7m. These objects have often been loosely described as "conceptual art", but Hirst prefers to call them "sculpture".

He has also long produced paintings - of a sort. These have come in two types: the pastel-coloured dots so widely ripped off by advertisers and the designers of would-be trendy decor; and the swirly-whirly patterns made by dripping paint on to a spinning disc. These, though attractive to look at, really are a bit conceptual. They are both clever, ironic comments on old-style painting and its pretensions to express things - such as feelings - through skeins of paint and choice of pigment.

The one thing nobody ever expected Hirst to do was to turn his hands - and of course, those of his assistants - to representational painting. He did, however, give me a clue last year that he was thinking of doing something radically new. When we met early in 2004, he told me that he had got quite far, quite fast.

"That gives you time to think about what you're actually going to do. I mean, there's a chair up there in art heaven with my name on, and I could go and sit next to Jackson Pollock and do nothing. But that's not what I want to do. I definitely think I'm slowing down, but I'm not ready to do rich people's pets in formaldehyde just yet."

After all, Hirst turns 40 this year; he has half a career (at least) ahead of him. Plainly he does not intend to spend the next 30 years repeating himself. Instead, he's done the least expected - and most risky thing - possible. He's tried to find his own approach to the old, most difficult game in art. It's a dangerous move, because the standards of comparison are so high, the range of possibilities so vast. We settle down in a corner of the studio chaos to talk about it.

How long have these paintings been gestating?

We've been working on them for three and a half years, but the amount we've got involved with has just increased and increased. Now there is such a lot to do, with so many people involved with it and a deadline looming. It's like a new drug.

Duke Ellington once said he didn't need time, he needed a deadline.

I think I'm a bit like that. My first idea was to present them as if they were a whole lifetime's work. So it would be as if an artist had just appeared. Then I thought instead of nervously testing the market and seeing how it went. It won't be quite like that, there will be a maximum of 30 paintings. I think we've got 12 to 15 finished now and I don't know how many more there'll be. But my first idea was that it would be great to turn up with, say, 200.

Where do the images come from?

Most of these are taken from news-papers and magazines - throwaway images that spoke to me. There's something factual that I like about that. But then by painting them you give them a value. You're saying: "Look at this a bit longer." I've been trying to make them like photographs to half-deny that they are paintings.

For three-and-a-half to four years I've been collecting them avidly. Some of the images relate back to the other work, but I'm still a bit surprised myself that I've ended up here. That DNA molecule, for example, I used on the menu for the restaurant Quo Vadis. Others are from details of my sculptures as well, so it's a bit of a hotchpotch. But, with luck, a driving theme will emerge.

But why, in 2005, go back to oil paint? What makes this old technology worth using now?

I decided recently that, in a way, all painting is sculpture. I've just bought a John Currin, and looking at it, I decided that that layer of paint on the surface is just the same as an object in the room. You know - the deliciousness of it, the thing that makes you love the painting, is a physical thing, the building up of layers. You want to eat it, as if it were ice cream or something.

Oil paint has a physicality that photography doesn't match.

You just get the lookalikeness with photography, don't you? What I love about Lucian Freud's work, for example, is that interplay between the abstract and the representational. It's so photographic from far away, yet when you get up close it's like an early De Kooning. You can always tell a great painting, because when you get close there are all these nervous marks.

The thickness of the paint also makes it optically different from a photographic print. The light passes through it and comes back.

It's odd, especially oil paint. Crazy stuff. When we were painting the blood on those blood images I wanted the paint to pour a bit: when there's a connection between the material and the object you're representing, it's believable.* * Whereas if it's just like a photograph, it seems not to work.

There's a connection between blood and paint, isn't there? A few weeks ago I went to Malta to see the Caravaggio picture of the beheading of St John the Baptist.

Oh great!

And he signed that picture in the paint that represents the Baptist's flowing blood.

Brilliant. I love that sort of thing. But I can't think about Caravaggio at the moment. If you think about his paintings, or Goya's, you just give up. If I put Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children up on the wall, that would be the end. I think the role of painting is different now. It's less important. There are so many other sorts of images.

How did you decide on the images and technique for these paintings?

The first one we did was of crystals. It's based on a postcard from the Natural History Museum.

The one of cut gemstones, floating in space?

Yes, I like that kind of order. It's dealing with something just as it is: arrange very simply, take a photograph - and then it looks like you are presenting some new knowledge about the world. Like a kid saying: "Look what I found!" That was the first painting we tried to do. Well, we airbrushed for two-and-a-half years. I got Nick, who was painting spots for me - he was a great spot-painter - and we went on and said: "Let's look at painting more realistically and what it entails." We tried to learn how to do it. But we didn't get anywhere with airbrushing. I can show you a horrible painting downstairs. I would come in and Nick would say: "What do you think?" and I'd say: "It's horrible." It was very disheartening.

But the discipline we learnt from that was great, because when we went into oil painting we didn't paint expressionistically. I think that if you do that you are covering up a multitude of sins. It's almost that you can't help expressing yourself, so it seems like a good idea to try not to. I think you should be hit first by the image, then you find out it's a painting. That's what I've been trying to get.

So airbrushing wasn't right?

We weren't finding what I was looking for. I kept saying: "It's got to be this - and not that - at the same time." I had quite complicated ideas of what painting is. I had been coming in and doing washes and doing a little bit of painting. Then when we moved into oil paint, we just got it. We went: "Yeah, that's it." So we trained a few other people and got on with painting.

How does the workshop operate? Who does what?

What I've been doing, which is probably a bit naughty, is finishing them. So I get other people to do all the hard work, then I come along and get the great bit, which is always finishing them. If I was painting something I'd always do the blood first, the best bit, then leave the boring bits until later.

In the beginning, I didn't want people to interpret things, just to copy them. Also, when we were talking about them, I'd say: "The one with the skull on it," and they'd say: "Yeah, Nick's painting." And I thought - we can't really think about them like that, because they're all my paintings.

So I moved people around to separate the process. Now we're in a position where different people do different things. One of my assistants is particularly good at doing the out-of-focus bits, so she does all of those. Then, in the end, I do all the washes that bind it all together. Or, for example, on the one with the brain slices I've thrown a lot of red around on top to make it really loose, like blood - gone a bit abstract and crazy.

The contrast in these paintings is between seeing them close up - where they seem quite loose and brushy - and at a distance, when they look quite photographic.

Yeah, they're great from outer space. We were going for hyperrealism, I think, and then stopped short of it at the last minute. I thought: "That's actually not what I want," and got into the paint itself. For the first two years we were trying to deny it was a painting, going for a photographic look. Then something else came along.

It's to do with the looseness of the marks. Different things get painted differently. But I always look for that link with the paint. If you are painting hair and you hold a brush and go very slowly and thinly, it will never look like hair; you've got to go fast and make a lot of marks because that's what hair does.

Finishing a painting - which you just called the easy bit - is usually supposed to be the anxious bit.

Is it? I love it. When you've just done it, you're not sure. But when you've sat with it for a couple of hours and you don't want to do anything more to it, that's a great feeling. It can stand on its own two feet. And we've always got the image to go back to. I used to get terrified of painting with a blank sheet of paper in front of me, thinking: "What am I going to paint?" The infinite possibilities. That's what used to do my nut in.

But because these are paintings, I've been thinking something is good, then going away and coming back a week later and seeing that it's full of flaws. Having a deadline is weird in that way, too: I can imagine painting right up to the last moment. I don't want to regret having shown something two years later.

You say that you always have the image to come back to, but actually you have adapted the original image. The one of the corridor, for example, is actually quite different from the photograph beside it.

I made it lighter to give it a bit more hope. That's what I mean by finishing it being the easy bit - very slight differences make a big difference.

Why this fascination with painting now?

I've always admired painting, and thought I wasn't a painter because I had been successful with sculpture and been in conversations in which I was told: "You can't paint."

For me, growing up in Leeds with that background of Fifties abstraction, we got more involved in the paint than in depicting things. It was about expressing yourself without having the basis for it. I've always felt at the back of my mind that you've got to be able to copy things faithfully before you can deviate. Or being torn between that and thinking: "Just do a Rothko." But if paint's going to be your medium, I think you should be able to go in any direction it can take you.

This is a big shock that you are going to give the art world. You must be aware of that.

Yes, I don't know how it's going to go. I've set myself up to be knocked down. But what the hell.

You felt like springing a surprise?

Yeah, I love that. My original idea was to do one of the versions of the spot paintings as the card, and call the show New Paintings. So people would think: "Oh God, same old thing," then come along to the gallery and think: "What the fuck is going on here?"

A version of this interview appears in 'Modern Painters' magazine ( www.modernpainters.co.uk), out today. The Elusive Truth! Damien Hirst: New Paintings, Gagosian gallery (Chelsea), New York (00 1 212 741 1111; www.gagosian.com), today to 23 April