Damien Hirst was standing in the middle of the top-floor exhibition space at Newport Street Gallery, the private museum that houses his collection, looking over the latest show to go on view there, Dan Colen’s “Sweet Liberty.”
“My mum’s gonna see it tomorrow, I think,” Hirst said.
He was wearing a black T-shirt with a skull on the back, gold chains, and a baseball cap, and was surrounded by work from different parts of Colen’s career, including a to-scale, very lifelike sculpture that’s part of the work Livin and Dyin (2012–13): Dan Colen in the nude, with nothing left to the imagination.
“I’m not sure what she’s going to think of it,” Hirst said.
Whatever Hirst’s mother thinks, the Colen show, which opens in London tonight at the block-sized space that the king of the YBAs opened in 2015, could be quite appealing to both Londoners and the hordes in town for Frieze. It traverses Colen’s career with a stately pace but rollicking tenor, showcasing the ur-New Yorker’s bile of earlier work before moving on to his later creations, indelible products of post-Pop fallout: the faithful Roger Rabbit and Scooby Doo, the booze bottles and cigarette butts of past parties, bubblegum on canvas, Nike high-tops tap dancing on the ceiling.
These might be familiar to those who know Colen’s work, but the show takes his practice to new places. There’s an intervention sure to cause some head scratching: holes in the wall meant to evoke the impact silhouette made by Roger Rabbit when he escapes by busting through a door. They’re seemingly laser-cut into the permanent sides of Hirst’s museum, through even the bricks, and they seem to have required quite the installation process—no one was quite sure how the trick was pulled.
There’s a showstopper too, a newly realized work, The Big Kahuna (2010–17), which opens the show and is, alas, timely again: a gnarled and wind-battered American flag, flopped beside the concrete block that’s supposed to support it, the steel flagpole limp and bent in a halo above it and toward the floor.
After the private preview, everyone retired to the second floor, where there’s Pharmacy 2, the restaurant at the end of a Damien Hirst-themed Disney World ride: medicine cabinets everywhere, pill-shaped barstools, glass-paneled pill works, medical gear in cases, a true ’90s-style Hirst explosion of id. Speaking to Colen, he explained that that the show’s origins lay in an impromptu studio visit that Hirst made over the Fourth of July weekend.
“I thought he was on his way back from Long Island, from the holiday,” Colen said. “Turns out, the British don’t really know what the Fourth of July is.”
He explained that the show took a full two years to realize, with Hirst’s curatorial team at Newport Street Gallery working alongside Colen’s studio, and that the sheer might of the space’s undergirding—it’s built to withstand 25 tons per square meter—allow him to bring to fruition ideas scotched in the past due to logistical issues. The Big Kahuna was going to be shown nearly a decade ago, but could only come to be in a situation that could handle its heft.
“I saw the flag on the New York Thruway, and I called up the flag company to see if I could get one,” Colen explained in the front of Pharmacy 2. “Then we had the concrete block that it’s supposed to be set in, and the flagpole. I tried to stage it in 2010, but it just wouldn’t work.”
Then he gestured to Hirst, who was sitting a few tables over.
“It took a maniac to get it shown,” he said.
During the dinner, before a smattering of Colen’s dealers—Dominique Lévy and Brett Gorvy, Massimo de Carlo, Sam Orlofsky from Gagosian—and artist friends—Jonas Wood, Joe Bradley, Nate Lowman—the curator Francesco Bonami got up to give a speech, which began as a riff on the essay he wrote for the show’s catalogue, and became something more wild. When he began discussing one part of the work Livin and Dyin—specifically the nude self-portrait, and specifically a certain part of that nude self-portrait—it became perhaps one of the more ribald speeches ever given by a Venice Biennale director.
“I will not take the size of Dan Colen’s dick as a curatorial endeavor or a critical endeavor,” he said. “But the holes in the walls, they’re not really holes, they’re passageways, passageways though which we can go, through which everything goes.”
“Even, eventually, Dan’s dick,” he said.
“Francesco Bonami, I’m sure your dick is beautiful, also,” Colen said when he got up to give a speech.
He then launched into a long, loving speech thanking his parents and siblings, all in attendance, some of his oldest friends who came for the show, his studio, his dealers, and many others, dragging the speech on.
“Since I was younger, something very kind of clear had been in my head, a sentiment, and over years it grows and this exhibitions crystallizes it for me: That this stuff happened because I believed in it and only I believed in it,” Colen said. “I don’t feel like that anymore. To feel the faith of other people in my work allows the work to come to me.”
And as the speech dragged on, some wondered whether he would remember to mention the patron who made it possible, but then he ended his speech by thanking Damien Hirst, whom he called one of the greatest artists of all time.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Colen said. “This is a dream come true.”