Interview with Jay Jopling

Originally published (in Italian) on “La Stanza Rossa” magazine, February 1994.


Jay Jopling is a lucky man. At thirty, he works with the artists he loves most and brought them to an international level of recognition. Damien Hirst, his most famous artist, at 28 is to be seen in the covers of the most important international magazines, in art fairs worldwide and in the collection of important museums around the globe.

“I think the great success of Damien Hirst’s work is that he is an artist who embraces contradictions”, he says, “his works often are very open minded, you are drawn in by the power of the initial image, whether it’s a shark suspended seeminglessly in equilibrium, whether it’s a cabinet of fish, you’re drawn in, the initial engagement is there, that’s very exciting, very seductive, and then there’s a lot more to the works than that, you’re then encouraged, almost made, to consider the wider implications of those pieces, and invariably there aren’t answers, there are just more questions raised, and that’s what’s exciting, those contradictions. He makes art that is like life, full of contradictions”. He shows me one of the early paintings of Hirst: a white canvas with lines of dots of all different colours. “This is a very undidactic painting, it’s not telling you anything, it’s not teaching you, but you can interpret it in many different ways, and at the same time it’s a very celebratory arrangement in a formal abstract tradition of paintings. He mixes 3000 colours in his studio, every single colour in this painting is different and they jump out in a very formal gridlike arrangement from the stark, white background: reference to the Op Art, to Gerard Richter’s colourtap paintings, but invented in a way that is able to explore ideas of pharmaceuticals, which is what it relates to. Molecular compounds of pharmaceutical drugs, and also the way pharmaceutical companies seductively colour their pills to make them look like M&M’s or Smarties: these are all other references one wouldn’t even know or think about. The suggestion is in the title, which is the name of a pharmaceutical compound”. Damien Hirst has created a real tendency in London’s contemporary art. While still at Goldsmith College he organized the exhibition “Freeze” with students that are now well known artists. Later, he went on to do other large warehouse exhibitions:”Modern Medicine” and “Gambler”, making Goldsmith become the focus point of London Contemporary Art. “It would be wrong to underestimate the importance of some of the teachers in that college, but the energy of students like Damien was a real catalysis for believing that things were possible, that you could just get off and do things, and doing them off your own back was an exciting thing. When he left Goldsmith I started working with him, and I had the same belief, when he told me he wanted to make the fish sculpture we just went ahead and made it, showed it in Manchester”.

SP-What I think some of your artists do is to speed up communication between art and the public, consequently speeding up the evolution of the artistic thought itself. Do any of your artists make use of any technologically advanced media to make this process more clear?

JJ-I think on of the exciting things about some of the artists I work with is their difference: the work of Marcus Taylor is very different in spirit to the work of Damien Hirst or Marc Quinn. I like very much art that people can walk in from the street and get an immediate response to it. That does not necessarily mean that art has to be sensational, but I think that if a work of art has an initial powerful engagement when you first confront it, if it has the power of seduction to draw you inside the work, to contemplate yourself and contemplate on other different interpretations that lie within the work, then I think this is a very exciting point for a successful piece of art. This is not the only way of looking at art; I think, as a dealer and as a representative of artists, I like to have as few preconceptions as possible, and as open a mind as possible. The only way you can really judge a piece of art is not against other pieces of art, but against your own way of looking at the world, and how radically or deeply it changes the mode of your perception. A successful piece of art does that initially and continues to do it again and again, and for that reason it has a certain universality that allows it to become a great work of art, which will work in twenty or thirty years time. I don’t think an artist can necessarily use a tool to get more direct relationship with the spectator, I don’t think it works like that, there are a lot more things going on, it is more complex. I don’t want everyone to understand my artists, but I would like everyone to get a response from a piece of art. It could be very detrimental to an artists’ career to have a piece that is very much talked about fort the wrong reasons: Marc Quinn’s sculpture “Self” (a head cast out of nine pints of the blood of the artist, kept in a transparent refrigerator) is one of the most articulate statement on the fragile balance between life and death: quite literally, if the plug is pulled out of that sculpture, the sculpture’s life, the form of that sculpture, disappears. At the same time in this piece Marc Quinn explores ideas of fear of death, ideas of immortality, trying to preserve yourself by making a self image in your own living matter, your living blood, it’s a very powerful, eloquent statement. At the same time the sculpture of the flake skin called “You take my breath away”, I think in many ways is even more powerful, much subtler, people don’t talk about that sculpture...”

SP-How strong is your influence towards your artists?

JJ-If my artists want to talk about ideas they have about their work, I love to do that, similarly if they want to talk about the business, where we want to show, who they want to sell work to, and if they have ideas about not selling to someone, then I let them as involved as they want, everything here is open to the artists: they can see who we sold to, how much we sold, they can talk about what we are doing in terms of programming, in trying to get exhibitions abroad, and likewise our relationship is very close for the creative side, if they don’t want it to be that close, that’s fine. Similarly, if they don’t want to have anything to do with the business side, and some of them don’t, that’s fine. I think it’s important as an art dealer to be as flexible as possible: primary rule is not to compromise ideas, I think it’s important to say if you think ideas are wrong, but not to compromise ideas during the process of development of those ideas, the creative beginning. My job as an art dealer is primarily a responsibility, to myself and to the people who support the work that I do, to select art that I think is important and I think it will be important not just now, but in twenty or thirty years time. My responsibility to the artist is to sell that work, to present that work in the best possible way, getting museum shows, putting work in the best collections. Anything more than that is a bonus, working with the artist is a real bonus, I have a very close relationship with Damien Hirst, and for that I’m extremely happy, I enjoy that relationship where we talk a lot about every aspect of whatever he does, and similarly with Marc Quinn and Itai Doron.

SP-What would you advice for someone who wanted to follow your career?

JJ-It’s difficult to pass an advice like that. I have been very lucky that I’ve grown up in an environment where a number of artists were making work that I consider of a very high standard. I’m very fortunate that people are interested in what I’m doing, and I’m very fortunate to be working with the five artists I’m working with; I believe they are all very good for very different reasons, and I’m determined to present their ideas to the best of my capacity. What I see as the responsibilities of the art dealer are the responsibilities to your public, to your collectors and to the people who expect a high standard when visiting your gallery, and I think you should impose those standards on yourself when looking at art. You have to be very open-minded, to have lack of preconceptions and to be able to consider whether or not pieces of art are going to be valid, are going to be important, or still have a message, or power of effecting the way people look at the world in thirty, forty years time, when different cultural situations are at play. That’s what makes an art dealer a good art dealer. Showing work in different locations, away from the restrictions of a site specificness of a gallery, could be a good starting point.

Last summer Jay Jopling has opened a little gallery, or temporary space, as he prefers to call it, to be used as a meeting point in the centre of London and to exhibit also artists from abroad. To my question whether having a “proper” gallery would not diminish his enthusiasm in the long run, he dryly answered with a quotation from Brancusi: “When no longer children we’re already dead”.


Stefano Pasquini Copyright 1993