Tuesday, December 31, 2013

6:30. And I was wondering if they'd make it to midnight.

via Instagram http://instagram.com/p/imtnkzLusG/

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Billion-Dollar Question: Can Contemporary Art Keep Climbing?

by Eileen Kinsella

Billion-Dollar Question: Can Contemporary Art Keep Climbing?
At Sotheby's Contemporary Sale, Dan Colen's "Holy Shit" (2006) sold for $341,000 and Andy Warhol's "Liz #1" (1963) sold for $20,325,000.
(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Words like “surreal” and “dizzying” were used a lot over the last couple of weeks to describe the atmosphere at major fall auctions of Impressionist, modern and especially contemporary art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, as prices for individual works shattered records, hitting new nine-figure highs, and overall sales of contemporary art surged to a new record. At the end of the two-week marathon that started at the beginning of the month, the tally for the two houses was $1.8 billion, roughly double the typical level of about five years ago and triple what it was a decade ago, when an average healthy season might net about $500 million.
Building on a trend that first became evident as the contemporary art market gathered steam around 2005 and 2006, the volume of sales of contemporary art far outpaced that of Impressionist and modern works, with contemporary art accounting for $1.25 billion at Sotheby’s and Christie’s compared with a $527 million for the earlier offerings. That trend subsided somewhat after the economic downturn finally caught up with the art market in late 2008 and there was a pronounced emphasis on blue chip Impressionists and early modern artists like Claude Monet and Alberto Giacometti. But contemporary art has clearly returned in full force. Last week, Christie’s led the category with a $782.4 million total for day and evening sales, while Sotheby’s comparable tally was $474.3 million.
Even before the sales, the number of eight-figure presale estimates on individual works was generating buzz: there were 17 at Christie’s; and six at Sotheby’s. At Christie’s all but one — Andy Warhol’s “Mercedes-Benz W 196 R Grand Prix Car (Streamlined version, 1954)” (1986), with a $12 million to $16 million estimate — hit the mark, and Sotheby’s wound up with nine such prices, even more than expected.
And after last week, each house could boast a $100-million-plus price tag for its respective top lot. At Christie’s it was $142.4 million, for Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych portrait of painter Lucian Freud, and at Sotheby’s it was Warhol’s “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” (1963) brought $105.4 million. It wasn't so long ago that only Picasso could break the $100 million mark; the first painting to do so at auction was his Rose Period “Garcon a la pipe (Boy With a Pipe)” (1905), which scored $104 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2004. Christie’s also captured the new record for highest price for a living artist when Jeff Koons’ monumental “Balloon Dog (Orange)” (1994) climbed to $58.4 million.
Can such astounding results possibly continue?
Immediately after the sale, Brett Gorvy, Christie’s worldwide head of Postwar and contemporary art asserted, “this isn’t a bubble, it’s the beginning of something new.” In a later interview, he pointed to the progressive growth in recent seasons, including the record evening sale last May of $495 million, and said the house's latest sale marked “a successful continuation."
"Basically we created a very strong foundation," he added. "The depth of bidding on those top lots, it is not something that is coming out of exuberance. It’s very controlled.” Gorvy points out that between seven to eight bidders were still in the running for the Bacon triptych even after the price hit $90 million.
Some experts expressed reservations about the likelihood of continued growth. Longtime New York dealer David Nash, director and co-owner of the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery, who called last week's results  “phenomenal,” acknowledged that “it’s definitely a new era. But whether that will last for the next sale or the one after that," he said, "I don’t know.”
He added, joking, “I had this idea I would go to the auction and ask if I could pay with tulip bulbs.”
Nonetheless, Nash concedes that there is a “wave of enthusiasm” for Postwar and contemporary art. “I think it’s for a number of reasons,” he said. “There were many first-class paintings in that category on the two nights, and secondly it is very difficult to get first-class Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and even early modern paintings. There is an enormous amount of money washing around, and I think there is a real feeling that this is a good place to to put money — into something tangible.”
Indeed, many experts see the explosion in contemporary prices as a supply-and-demand issue, given that the best examples of Impressionist and modern art have largely been snapped up by major institutions and private collection, leaving growing ranks of massively wealthy buyers to pursue the best of what’s out there now — meaning classic Postwar names like Bacon, de Kooning, Twombly, and Richter.
The New York dealer Dominique Levy noted the surprising depth of the bidding for top lots. Where there used to be slimmer pools of bidders chasing particular categories — European buyers interested in European artists, American collectors bidding on Americans — “the very big difference [now] is that you are  looking at a global market,” in which new collectors are competing with seasoned buyers on a level not seen before.
Asked whether she thought anything in particular explained the high level of eight figure works on offer this season, Levy — who bought Lucio Fontana’s ovoid-shaped canvas “Concetto Spaziale, La Fine Di Dio” (1963) for a record $20.9 million at Christie's on Tuesday night — said, “there is not just one answer for why people decide it’s the right time to sell." She added that she believes the current level of knowledge and connoisseurship that goes into collecting is remarkable. "I don’t buy the idea that people are cashing in.”
Nash, however, says he sees at least some speculative elements in the market. “I was a little surprised to find that many of the people who would normally be buyers were actually sellers,” he said, noting that Peter Brant and Steve Cohen both sold major works this season. Brant was the seller of the orange Koons balloon dog, while Cohen consigned several works to Sotheby’s, including Brice Marden’s “The Attended” (1996-99), which took in an above-estimate $10.9 million; Gerhard Richter’s “A.B. Courbet" (1986), which went for $26.5 million; and Warhol’s “Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz), which sold for $20.3 million.
Of these sales, Nash said, “it clearly means there is a huge element of trading.” And under the $10 million level, he added, “I noticed that there were pictures that have just been painted or on the market in the last five years turning around at much higher prices. I think that’s a little troubling. But there is no doubt that there are newer buyers out there who are willing to spend.”


Friday, December 20, 2013

Wal-Mart heiress uses fortune to build awe-inspiring art gallery in Arkansas

By Pat Brennan

Wal-Mart heiress uses fortune to build awe-inspiring art gallery in Arkansas

Visitors admire the painting of Rosie the Riveter.

Photograph by: Pat Brennan , For Postmedia News

Alice Walton was running out of wall space in her various mansions to hang her favourite pieces of art, so she hired Montreal architect Moshe Safdie to design an art gallery on her old childhood playground.

Safdie’s $350 million creation - Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art - opened in the fall of 2011 to worldwide raves. It stretches across a small river running through a wooded valley in Bentonville, Arkansas - population 35,000 - and has already elbowed its way on to the list of the world’s most impressive art galleries.

And Alice Walton, the youngest of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s four children, has filled its bright, spacious halls with, what art critics claim, is the world’s finest collection of American art.

You won’t have to cash in your collection of empty beer cans to see Alice’s collection.  Admission is free to Crystal Bridges.

Having $22 billion in the bank and being America’s 9th wealthiest person permits such generous gestures.

Crystal Bridges derives its name from the gallery’s two pavilions of exposed wood and glass strung across two ponds created by the stream that runs through the treed valley. Alice played in this valley as a child while her dad ran his five-and-dime store on the town’s square and dreamt of bigger things.

The art gallery blends unobtrusively into the valley’s nature.

Safdie has designed famous buildings around the world.  In Canada his draughting table gave life to Habitat 67, the revolutionary Montreal apartment complex sitting on the St. Lawrence River and unveiled for Expo 67.  The National Gallery of Canada, one of Ottawa’s most beautiful buildings, is a Safdie creation. In Toronto, terminal one at Pearson International Airport was designed by Safdie, so too is the 45-stotrey Pantages Tower, a condominium and hotel on Victoria St. at Shuter St.  Another Safdie condo tower is under construction by Great Gulf Homes on Lower Sherbourne St. at Queen’s Quay on the Toronto waterfront.

You’ll recognize many of the famous paintings as you wander through Crystal Bridges – such as Norman Rockwell’s 1943 “Rosie The Riveter” for which Alice paid $4.9 million, or George Washington sitting for his Gilbert Stuart portrait in 1796. She paid $8.1 million for that piece and $35 million for “Kindred Spirits,” an 1849 painting by Asher Durand. New York City aficionados were stunned when New York Public Library sold its prized possession at auction to buy more books. Dolly Parton attended the museum’s grand opening to see Andy Warhol’s painting of her adorned with large earrings.

Another Walton museum you should visit in Bentonville is the back room of Sam Walton’s original store on the town’s main square. That store has grown to more than 8,500 Wal-Mart stores with annual sales of nearly $500 billion.

He was America’s richest man when he died at age 74 in 1992. The museum contains Sam’s simple office, plus the vehicle he drove everyday – a 17-year-old Ford pick up.


Online: http://crystalbridges.org

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

This is how 76-year-old David Hockney became the world's preeminent iPad artist

 Before the advent of the iPad, Hockney used Adobe Photoshop with a stylus and touch sensitive pad to create digital works. Here is a detail of Matelot Kevin Druez 2, which was printed on paper using an inkjet.
It's mind-boggling to look at paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries and think that artists like Leonardo da Vinci created such vibrant portraits using nothing more than a free hand and the naked eye -- when just 100 years before, two-point perspective was unknown. If you're David Hockney, who's been a seminal figure in modern painting since the 1960s, you literally can't believe it.
Hockney holds nothing against his predecessors, but he does have a theory that some used early optical devices to improve and expand their skills.
The idea first occurred to him nearly 14 years ago and became the subject of his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters.

Hockney's latest show, A Bigger Exhibition, hosted by San Francisco's de Young Museum, looks back on the period since his revelation, highlighting how he's embraced technology ranging from video cameras to iPads, and integrated them into his art. (The exhibition's title is a play on Hockney's best-known painting, A Big Splash.)
In 1999, a long-standing and well known fascination with new media led Hockney to his controversial suspicions. Visiting the retrospective of a 19th century French artist, he noticed uncanny technical similarities to drawings that Andy Warhol had traced from slide-projected photographs.
Knowing that the tools Warhol had used clearly weren't available in the 1800's, Hockney began researching. It wasn't long before he came across camera lucida, a small prism mounted at the end of a metal arm that enables an artist to refract an image onto their paper. The device received a patent in 1807. Bingo.

The discovery was enough to prompt Hockney to expand his investigation, which quickly grew in scope and size. By the end of his study he'd created The Great Wall, a staggering arrangement of pictures organized chronologically from left to right, and geographically from top to bottom, charting of the evolution of western art across time and space. He used the Wall to trace this history of optical aids, identifying 1420 as the trend's likely genesis.
Shown publicly for the first time at the de Young, the 8-by-72-foot behemoth is the ultimate testament to Hockney's obsession with technology's influence on fine art. It's obvious that tools like camera lucida made creating realistic artwork easier.
But Hockney's broader concern, which he's explored extensively throughout his career, is how technology has allowed artists to experiment with new perspectives, and thus create new ways of considering the world around them.
Where Jan van Eyck might have used convex mirrors to create a larger field of view on his canvas, Hockney turns to a modern equivalent: video cameras. Tucked among the rows of hanging paintings and sketches, four large sets of nine LED screens roll footage of the same country road, each in one of the four seasons.
To make the piece, titled Woldgate Woods, Hockney mounted nine cameras on an SUV and while a studio assistant drove, he directed another who controlled each shot individually. The result is a video collage that's synchronized in timing, but visually unaligned -- a choice he hoped would challenge the viewer's understanding of perspective, encouraging them to explore each screen and become an active participant in the work.
Unsurprisingly, you can find more evidence of technological inspiration all over A Bigger Exhibition. Walking through the seemingly endless space devoted to the exhibit -- the largest in the museum's history -- it's seemingly in more places than not.
From towering 12-foot-tall prints of iPad drawings to rolling flat screens depicting each of his digital brushstrokes, Hockney's eye has remained steady while his tools have changed -- making you wonder what will be next in his arsenal

Monday, December 16, 2013

Not your typical art snob

He is one of the most influential figures in the Canadian art world, but the road that Marc Mayer took to get there was certainly off the beaten track.

Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery of Canada, in front of David Altmejd’s “The Vessel” (Photo: Jessica Deeks)
by John Allemang
Marc Mayer, BA’84, has something he wants to get off his chest.
“It’s my dirty little secret,” says the director of the National Gallery, sounding nothing like a man who’s inclined to be secretive.
Mayer is in the attention-getting business: Since 2009, he’s run the country’s premier art museum with a look-at-me style that makes no concession to the traditions of public-servant reticence.
When the onetime high-school dropout describes his career trajectory, he talks about chasing tips as a Toronto waiter and haunting the eighties Berlin disco scene as if those were key incubators of Ottawa officialdom.  The well-travelled veteran of the contemporary art scene doesn’t think twice about characterizing his preferred milieu as “a snob magnet.” Free speech is in his blood.
So what’s left to confess?
“I’m an aesthete,” says the Sudbury, Ontario, native in his best conspiratorial voice. “I live for beauty and its pleasures.”
If anyone is going to win over Ottawa to rampant hedonism, it’s this animated 57-year-old who found his way to the McGill art history program as a self-taught mature student. His own life bears witness to the power of conversion: because Marc Mayer turned himself into an aesthete, you too can do the same.

Jargon is the enemy

A viewer looks at "Eco" by Omero Leyva during a media preview of Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)
A viewer looks at “Eco” by Omero Leyva during a media preview of Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
“My goal is to create art lovers,” he says, almost as if that were an unusual priority in a museum director.  “It’s not obvious to people how that can happen to you. You’re not born an art lover – I certainly don’t think I was – but it does happen to you at some point. So we have to find ways to attract people to this building, not just to talk to them about art history and point to these objects, but to give them many different reasons, social reasons, to come to the gallery. And once we get new people using the museum, we’re going to start making advocates for the art and people are going to start falling in love with these objects.”
The gallery as hangout – it doesn’t sound like the strategy of an aesthete, but Mayer’s reversed understanding of artistic discovery is that it can begin with basic human needs. Create a gallery bar where people feel happy talking, and the art around them will become part of their comfort zone. Culture, even official culture, doesn’t happen in isolation, and it doesn’t need elaborate interpretation by curatorial high priests to reach the people it was meant for.
“We take labels off the wall if they’re incomprehensible,” Mayer says about his plain-speaking regime, “and we replace them with labels that can be understood. I like the French term, vulgarisateur, meaning someone who can take complex ideas and simplify them without denaturing them, without lessening their import by oversimplification. That’s a skill curators need to have more and more.”
The populist approach could be seen to suit a Conservative government that’s uncomfortable with notions of cultural elitism – particularly if his dreams of a smart gallery bar (and restaurant and bookstore) can generate income and take some pressure off the public purse.  But Mayer isn’t playing to the political crowd so much as appealing to his own artistic instincts.
“I’ve been looking at art since I was a child, and at some point I started reading less and looking more. I was scared away by discourse and jargon; I thought, I’m never going to be an art lover if I have to read this stuff and understand it.”
The esoteric, exclusionary side of the art world has always bothered him. “I came to art differently,” he says, “and so I take a different approach.”
Mayer’s approach certainly caught the attention of Ottawa’s mandarin class when he took over the gallery’s directorship from the aloof Pierre Theberge in 2009. “Marc began with some of the style and verve of an enfant terrible, speaking brashly with quick and loud laughter,” says Victor Rabinovitch, BA’68, the former CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization who now chairs the board of Ottawa’s Opera Lyra. “He projected a watch- me message, saying that he would liven up the NGC from its seemingly quiet, academically rooted ways.”

The dropout finds his passion

Marc Mayer (Photo: Jessica Deeks)
He came by that style honestly, since his first intense aesthetic explorations took place not in some hallowed gallery but in Toronto’s vast modern reference library. “I was a very frustrated, intellectually ambitious high-school dropout who wanted to know how the world worked,” Mayer recalls. The library for him was a sort of prototype for his notion of the cultural hangout – a social centre with resources that could be life-changing for those who exercised their curiosity.
His education to that point had been highly imperfect. He’d skipped a grade and then been held back in primary school, never successfully learned to tell time until he was a teenager, remade himself into the class clown as a way to deal with the daily boredom of the classroom and was eventually felled by his extramural social distractions: “Sex, drugs, rock and roll etc.,” as he enumerates them.
He dropped out and started over as a waiter in Toronto. He found the work highly satisfying, and it remains a formative part of his worldview. “You develop a certain sang-froid and a dedication to service. At the end of the day you’ve got a pocketful of money because you’ve earned all these tips. But the thing you feel most rewarded by is that you’ve fed all these people.”
In his free time, he explored the library, systematically working his way through photography and history magazines, reading madly in all directions. A friend decided to channel his enthusiasm and pointed him toward a university program for adult dropouts.  The winning sales pitch, Mayer says, was “you’re no longer the child, you’re the client.” Client-based education delighted the intellectually ambitious autodidact, and he eventually worked his way to Montreal and McGill.
“McGill was a wonderful experience for me,” he says. “I love the fact that in those days they took the classical approach. You had to read the Bible and the Iliad to get through art history, you had to study foreign languages – I learned German and Italian.”
He actually set out to be a pure historian, but then got a taste of art history and found himself torn. Professor Winthrop Judkins, who’d established the rigorous art history program three decades earlier, took on the role of decider.
“I was one of his last students,” Mayer recalls. “He just looked at me and said, ‘You’re so good, stick with us. Don’t be a jack of all trades, and master of none; you’ll be a terrific art historian.’ And he was right: I was much more interested in objects that remained from the past than documents from the past. I’m more a looker than a reader.”

Old and new

Mayer’s career has been so predisposed to the present – with stints at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, the Power Plant in Toronto, the Brooklyn Museum, the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal – that his intense devotion to the past may come as a surprise.  In the cerebral gallery world, there’s generally a friction between contemporary and historical, but Mayer’s pleasure-driven aesthetic has made him a unifying force.
“My cast of mind is such that I’m always trying to make connections, trying to understand material culture and humanity through art. Art is history and it’s also information. I find I’m a little unusual  among the curators I’ve worked with in that I’m very passionate about Old Masters, I love African art, I love Chinese ceramics. Material culture to me is an endless cornucopia of fascination. But contemporary art is the most meaningful because I can actually know the creators, I can affect their thinking through our friendship.”
It was at McGill that he came to realize the boundlessness of art history. His passion was the Italian Baroque and his hero was a 17th-century polymath from Turin named Guarino Guarini – architect, playwright, philosopher, monk, master of geometry. “He made the most complex buildings you could imagine,” Mayer says. “Art historians ignored them because they were too complex to describe.”
The degree of difficulty intrigued him. “I decided that I was the guy to explain Guarini and the Italian Baroque by chaos theory and fractals,” he says, both amused and fascinated by the intense academic boldness of his younger self.
And then a new world opened up. The young historian liked to spend free time challenging himself at the Musée d’art contemporain, staring at everything, understanding nothing.  He came across a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a fellow high school dropout whose graffiti-inspired work was the subject of an exhibition Mayer later curated at the Brooklyn Museum.
“Here was someone who was world-famous and he was actually younger than me. It was the moment when I realized that a painting hanging in a museum could be something being made today by someone who’s living and experiencing the same world you’re experiencing.”
The power of that personal discovery remains with him at the National Gallery. When he goes hunting for art to acquire, he says immodestly, “I’m looking for that key work in the artist’s corpus that’s going to open a whole new world for you and your life.”
Given his background, he has a soft spot for the kind of contemporary art likely to win over traditionalists who insist the only good art is old art. He points proudly to such acquisitions as Sophie Ristelhueber’s 71 large-format photographs of the aftermath of the First Gulf War, Yang Fudong’s five-part film Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (“probably the most famous Chinese video art”) and Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer’s 120-foot long Leaves of Grass, which features 16,000 images cut out from old editions of Life magazine, mounted on grass sticks.
When calculating what to acquire, he starts with his gut instinct, that nagging feeling of desire that “makes you wake up, sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and say ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to buy that.’” The aesthetic rush is paramount – curatorial justification comes later.
He had that feeling with Farmer’s work. But he also had it with a more conventional painting by the French artist Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. It’s an unfinished erotic work that was commissioned by the Empress Josephine just before she was divorced by Napoleon and bears the winning title Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps, Remorse Follows – “the story of everyone’s life,” Mayer notes.

A tough nut to crack

Designed by Moshe Safdie, BArch’61, LLD’82, the National Gallery is a familiar part of the Ottawa landscape (Photo: National Gallery)
The gallery under his leadership has drawn crowds with blockbuster collaborations on Van Gogh and Caravaggio, but he and his team have received the most kudos for “Sakahan,” an exhibition of contemporary indigenous art from Canada and 15 other countries. “It was an immensely high-minded endeavour to undertake,” says Globe and Mail art critic Sarah Milroy, BA’79, “really bold and expensive and risky. I don’t know that shows like that get huge foot traffic, but there’s no denying they’re the right thing to do.”
Indeed, the 2013 summer show drew barely 60,000 visitors compared to the 230,000 who attended the previous year’s Van Gogh event. “Marc has encountered the hard financial realities of popular shows versus important shows,” Rabinovitch observes. Contemporary art remains a hard sell – at least in Ottawa, in tourist season.
“It’s a challenge,” admits Mayer. “This is a museum that’s two or three times bigger than a city the size of Ottawa would support if it wasn’t a museum meant to serve the whole country. It’s the toughest of nuts to crack: How do you serve the whole country from Ottawa and still be very appealing to the people who live here?”
Partnerships with regional Canadian galleries have become part of the solution. But money, lots of it, remains the best way to solve the National Gallery’s awkward problems of scale.  “These are tough times for art museums,” Mayer acknowledges, and the generally bleak economic climate during his tenure has been exacerbated by the need to reconstruct the gallery’s aging Great Hall – responding to the recession and the need to modernize, he has chosen to cut jobs in education, library services, communications, security and IT.
But Mayer is at heart an optimist and an enthusiast, not a man who likes to bear bad news with a long face.  Others might take issue with the federal government’s commitment to the finer arts, but he happily says, “I’m not frustrated by politics in Ottawa.”
His funding has held steady, there’s been no interference on the artistic side, and when he wants to share his anxieties about, say, the fragile tourism market in Ottawa, he finds a willing ear in Heritage Minister Shelly Glover.
In return, he looks for ways to make a venerable cultural institution more responsive to contemporary needs and desires.
“The thing that’s important to me and in line with the thinking in Ottawa,” he says, “is that the gallery has to pull its own weight as much as possible.” Hence his hopeful thoughts about repositioning the gallery as a place to have a beautiful meal and a brilliant conversation – and his willingness, bordering on eagerness, to court wealthy donors.
“I’m much more involved in fundraising than my predecessor was,” he says. “I actually enjoy it.”
As the man said, he lives for pleasure.

John Allemang is a feature writer for the Globe and Mail.

Mayer on some masterworks

We invited Marc Mayer to tell us a little about some of his favourite items in the National Gallery’s extensive collection. Here are two of the works that he feels a special connection to. The photos are by Jessica Deeks.

Brian Jungen
Court, 2004
sewing tables, painted steel, paint, basketball hoops and backboards, 2500 x 300 x 250 cm installed
Gift of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver, 2012
Court makes me think of Marie-Antoinette, or rather the vile retort misattributed to her that I would paraphrase as: “Let them eat sports.” I’m usually not a fan of one-liners in art, but the socio-economic point Jungen makes by turning sweatshop sewing tables into a basketball court is so important, the lengths he has gone to make the point so extreme, the work’s coherence within the context of his larger project so seamless, that it meets my definition of brilliant. 
David Altmejd
The Vessel, 2011
plexiglas, chain, plaster, wood, thread, wire, acrylic paint, epoxy resin, epoxy clay, acrylic gel, granular medium, quartz, pyrite, assorted minerals, adhesive, wire, pins, and needles, 260.4 x 619.8 x 219.7 cm
Purchased 2012
The Vessel describes swans and describes a description of swans, but I don’t want to venture too much further because I want to keep savoring the awe of first glance. I’ve been looking at this wonder for the first time, over and over, for two years now. With art, the real work of pleasure is in your head as you analyze the details, testing and retesting your initial intuition against your knowledge and expectations. The process has risks for the work, of course. Are you really standing in front of something profound or is it just special effects? Though I don’t fear the answer, it’s a testament to Altmejd’s power that I’m not ready to ask that question yet.

It stinks! Art critic Julian Spalding was banned from Damien Hirst's Tate exhibition after calling him a talentless conman... but we smuggled him in - and here's his verdict

It stinks! Art critic Julian Spalding was banned from Damien Hirst's Tate exhibition after calling him a talentless conman... but we smuggled him in - and here's his verdict

By Julian Spalding

There is no party more tantalising than one you’re banned from. It was in that spirit that I joined the 100-strong throng outside the Tate Modern art gallery in London on Thursday to see the Damien Hirst exhibition. But while my fellow queuers were buzzing in anticipation of Hirst’s dots, pills and those dead animals, I was just relieved I hadn’t been barred by the bouncers.
That’s exactly what happened when I tried to visit the exhibition earlier this week with a BBC camera crew in tow. Dozens of reporters and cameramen swept into the press screening, but my film crew and I weren’t allowed past the door.
As former Director of the Glasgow Museums and author of five art books, I’ve been welcomed into hundreds of galleries around the world, but a feature I wrote for last week’s Mail on Sunday must have touched a nerve with the Tate’s bosses and earned me a place on their blacklist.
Sinking feeling: Julian Spalding contemplates Hirst's shark in formaldehyde at the Tate Modern
Sinking feeling: Julian Spalding contemplates Hirst's shark in formaldehyde at the Tate Modern
I had dared to say what many of my colleagues secretly think: Con Art, the so-called Conceptual Art movement, is little more than a money-spinning con, rather like the emperor’s new clothes. That goes for the ‘artist’ Carl Andre who sold a stack of bricks for £2,297. It goes for Marcel Duchamp, whose old ‘urinal’ was bought by the Tate for $500,000 (about £300,000). It goes for Tracey Emin’s grubby old bed. And, of course, it goes for Damien Hirst.
I was determined to set aside my preconceptions and experience the Damien Hirst retrospective, which opened on Wednesday and will close in September. I’ve long believed him to be a money-hungry charlatan but as the richest living artist at the age of 46, he must be doing something right.
He was worth £215 million in 2010, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, and he pulls in visitor numbers each day that many galleries would be lucky to draw in a month, so surely I’ve been unfair.
Yet four hours later I emerged from the exhibition weary, miserable and desperate to clear the lingering stench of rotten cow from my nose. Were there not a Tate fatwa stamped on my head, I might have stood in front of the hundreds still queuing to pay the £14 admission and shouted: ‘Stop.’
Of course, people should decide for themselves. But judging by the surly expressions of those dripping out, I wasn’t the only one left feeling drained – and conned.
In a series of conversations, I found out what propels people, many of whom rarely visit art galleries, to queue for 60 minutes for this marketing circus. ‘Is it art?’ I asked and pointed at a shark preserved in formaldehyde, a wall of dots, and flies feasting on a dead cow’s head.
Defining work: The artist with Mother and Child Divided, which comprises a cow and a calf cut in half and preserved in formaldehyde. The work is part of the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern, London, which runs from April 5 to September 9
Defining work: The artist with Mother and Child Divided, which comprises a cow and a calf cut in half and preserved in formaldehyde. The work is part of the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern, London, which runs from April 5 to September 9 

‘Of course it is, it’s a Damien Hirst.’ One plummy-voiced blonde accompanied by a gaggle of children looked offended that I’d dared to ask. But why is it art? ‘Because it makes you feel something.’ When I asked what it makes them feel, most referred me to the guidebook explanations.
What quickly becomes apparent  is that it is like a religion. Everyone is strangely committed to the cult of Hirst – but few can articulate what is fantastic about a soggy, sad-looking shark, preserved in a vitrine with all the menace of a sagging sofa.
Created by a Turner Prize winning artist, the dead tiger shark, grandly named The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, should be one of the great artworks of the last century, yet most visitors spent less than three seconds looking at it.
What is also striking is the way disoriented visitors drift around the gallery. Traditionally, in exhibitions of ‘real art’, visitors cluster around the paintings or sculptures while the rest of the gallery is empty.
The Hirst exhibition is another matter. People mill about like unmagnetised iron filings. Why? Nobody is engaged. One enormous spot painting is half hidden behind  a formaldehyde-preserved cow.
Smaller vitrines containing skulls are dumped on the floor at random. A young boy trips over one and stops to look at it. ‘Why are you looking at that? It’s revolting,’ I say.
‘It is, isn’t it?’ the boy’s mother replies. ‘I have strange children.’
In fact, the only exhibit in the main exhibition (for the diamond skull is shown separately) drawing a large crowd is a cordoned-off room called In And Out Of Love, which contains exotic butterflies and bowls of fruit. Nobody in the 40-deep queue looks at the spot paintings on the nearby wall or the Ikea-style desk with an overflowing ashtray on it.
'Is it art?': Hirst's 1986 piece Spot Painting, household gloss on board. Julian Spalding says those he spoke to struggled to explain what was so special about the works on show
'Is it art?': Hirst's 1986 piece Spot Painting, household gloss on board. Julian Spalding says those he spoke to struggled to explain what was so special about the works on show

Thirty minutes later, we reach the front, and are granted two minutes’ access to a small humid room of butterflies, a lot less impressive than the Butterfly House at Berkeley Castle – which costs only £3.50 to visit.
This confusion begins in the first room. Few people notice the first exhibit, Kitchen Cupboard, a shiny orange Formica unit made in 1987. ‘Is it a fire extinguisher case or part of the show?’ asks one baffled man. Nobody answers because nobody else is looking at it.
Few pause at the grubby spot painting leaning carelessly against a wall. Worse, the glass case containing a string of limp sausages, imaginatively entitled ‘Sausages’, is held together with grubby gaffer tape.
Whoever was responsible for refreshing the paintings with butterflies didn’t notice that a butterfly’s abdomen has fallen away and the wings disintegrated.
One of the only exhibits to sustain visitors’ attention for more than a couple of seconds is a grotesque black-and-white photograph taken  in 1981. In it, Hirst grins and holds up a severed head with an uncanny resemblance to Sir Winston Churchill. Back then, Hirst was a sixth-form student. He scored an E-grade in A-level art and later wormed his way on to the Fine Art course at Goldsmiths, University of London, after first being rejected. Tellingly, the Tate has excluded Hirst’s paintings. Quite simply, Hirst can’t paint.
It was at Goldsmiths that he met Charles Saatchi, who would propel him from chancer to millionaire before they parted company in  2003 after a disagreement over the way Hirst’s works were staged at Saatchi’s gallery.
Around that time, Hirst admitted: ‘I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it.’ Which raises the question: is he consciously playing us for fools?
I put this to an accountant from Norwich, who was gazing intently at a wall of preserved fish that could have been plucked from the Natural History Museum. ‘I like the fact that Hirst put the skinned animal skulls next to the fish, which have skin,’ says Giles Kerkham.
When I inform him that Hirst has amassed £215 million from such juxtapositions,  he concedes, ‘No one’s worth that.’
‘Think of all the hungry people in the world you could feed with that,’ says teaching assistant Kathryn Gynn as we stand in front of For The Love Of God, a skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds that was reportedly sold for £50 million.
But it is the rotting cow head, called A Thousand Years, that I can’t bear to look at. Blood trickles out  of it, swarms of flies feast on it and  the horrific stench is pumped into the gallery. ‘It’s very macabre,’ says Craig Thurlby. What an understatement. ‘I interpret the flies and cow as life and death, so I guess it has meaning and stuff,’ says Craig.
‘Isn’t Hirst just playing us for fools?’ I explode.
‘Probably,’ agrees Craig. ‘If he is, he’s doing a bloody good job of it.’
Standing next to him, two young men shake their heads. ‘I don’t like any of it,’ one says. So why did they come? ‘We just wanted to see what everyone’s raving about.’
The same goes for a Moroccan tourist who hadn’t heard of Hirst until today. His reaction? ‘It’s not very nice.’
I bump into the same two young men at the sausages. ‘What’s Hirst’s meaning?’ I ask them.
‘Maybe he was hungry.’ I can’t imagine a more accurate answer.
One wonders why Hirst even agreed to be shown in the Tate. After all, in an interview in 1996, he said: ‘Museums are for dead artists. I’d never show my work in the Tate.’
Dead artists, indeed. For Hirst’s most loyal cult followers might champion this exhibition as his mid-career celebration, but the shrewder ones can see through his nonsensical cons. They see the truth: that Hirst, at 46, has reached the realms of dead artists. And this exhibition is his grubby, inglorious obituary.
  • Julian Spalding is an independent curator and museums consultant. His book Con Art –  Why You Ought To Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can is available via Amazon Kindle.