Imagine, if you will, the following scene (sepia tint optional): a young student Damien Hirst gazing wide eyed at John Hoyland’s brilliantly colourful and zingy Rothko-like abstracts at Leeds Art Gallery. One day, he thinks, I will be as great a painter as he. Fast forward a couple of decades, and Hirst hasn’t proved himself as a painter – see comical Wallace collection efforts – but he does now own more than thirty fine Hoyland paintings. And he’s made enough money peddling endangered butterflies stuck to household gloss that he can afford to pour around £25m of his own money into a brand new gallery space in Vauxhall to exhibit his collection. It is the best thing he’s done in his entire career.
First, the space. And oh, the space! This £25m bought a design by architects Caruso St John which converts a terrace of listed Victorian industrial buildings originally erected in 1913 Newport Street as studios for painting West End scenery into the ultimate gallery space: unlike the cavernous Tate Modern warehouse or smaller whitewashed indie spaces, it is filled with light, staggeringly high ceilings and enough space for works to breathe and enjoy their personal space. It is beautiful (a word I rarely use) in its churchlike height and retention of original but unintrusive character.
Second, Hirst has so much dosh that his collection can skim the cream off the top of available works; there is not a duff work here but a selection comprehensive enough to represent Hoyland’s career without Hirst having to work up too much of a sweat in constructing a decent curatorial survey. There’s no need for the curatorial fall back on filler when the number of essential works lack. Last, he has the weight of Nicholas Serota to contribute academic heft to his accompanying catalogue, as well as critic Barry Schwabsky.
Hirst said he felt guilty in owning so much amazing art but not having it available to the public, and if Hoyland’s retrospective is anything to go by it is vast enough to fill many museums several times over. A meaner person might say that the response to display his collection in this setting is not so much out of guilt, but rich person’s necessity to have his goodies on show properly as opposed to squished in his living room on rotation. Regardless, it is the most exciting and flawlessly executed – and, crucially, free – new gallery to have hit London in some time, and I am expecting further exceptional treats to come. I was half expecting a gift shop filled with Hirst-themed shite, but no sign of. I can’t stress how surprised and delighted I am by the whole enterprise.
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