An exclusive extract taken from The Saatchi Opus. A piece written by renowned English art critic and media personality, the late Brian Sewell
Perhaps both interpretations are in part correct, for the Saatchi who came to prominence as the utterly conventional collector of the 1970s did not suddenly become, a generation on, a showman in much the same sense as those of the early nineteenth century whose entrepreneurial instincts drove them to exhibit any painting rare, strange or notorious enough to merit a tuppenny entrance fee; they overlapped. In recent years he has given the impression of hastily assembling for temporary exhibition groups of paintings that can pass for surveys of immediately contemporary art in Germany, America, China and other parts of the world that offer thoroughly international (and indistinguishable) mimicries of western art — but these have not been the scrupulous investigations of the responsible gallery curator, but happy accidents for the roving predator with too little time to spare. How many of these pictures will he keep? Is there, indeed, still a formal collection or is everything now bought for profitable exploitation and disposal, each successive exhibition funding the next?
If there is a Saatchi art at the end of this century’s first decade, it is less the cutting edge of the Arts Council or the breaking of bounds and leaping of boundaries favoured by the Turner Prize, than a taste for figurative art that is bizarre, grotesque, ghoulish, sexual and calculatedly offensive, much tempered by huge scale, for most of these characteristics are intensely nastier writ small. Saatchi is evidently attracted by unmodulated realism, by the literal representation of the human being or the thing in an improbable material, by the flimsy black plastic waste bin bag cast in bronze and convincingly painted black, the uncomely human figures cast from life by Duane Hanson in fibreglass and resin, and the waxworks — disconcertingly too small or too large — of Ron Mueck, a skilled artisan literally converted into an artist by Saatchi’s promptings and propaganda. His taste for overwhelming scale and shallow assertiveness of imagery must come from his experience in the advertising industry, to the images of which his chosen art is so often close.
He is occasionally attracted by the very absence of merit, by the downright bad, as with Stella Vine, whose crude portrait of Princess Diana, Hi Paul, can you come over …? he bought, with other equally meretricious paintings, from a hapless dealer operating in a disused Hackney garage in 2004. As with so many acquisitions, he courted controversy through a press foolishly willing to be exploited, the mock horror of ignorant journalists worth a fortune in terms of advertising, this a typical example of the promotion of his collection, each addition to which is swiftly and cunningly made notorious. One consequence of the Saatchi ‘treatment’ was Vine being taken seriously by authorities who should have known better: in the summer of 2007, Modern Art Oxford, a public art gallery funded by the Arts Council and the city fathers, gave Vine her first solo exhibition, a ‘major’ retrospective revealing her to be ‘a bold, innovative painter with a fresh approach ..;’ the eximious Professor Germaine Greer, critic and art historian to boot, lent her blessing with an ekphrastic foreword to the catalogue. Yet again, where Saatchi led, critics, curators and academics followed, and Saatchi sold Hi Paul… for £25,000, fifty times what he had paid for it.
In retrospect, Saatchi now seems with his second collection, the Young British Artsits, to have been remarkably courageous. To have known so little about art and yet to have ventured without hesitation into such shark-infested waters, was an adventure as rash as Colonel Fawcett’s up the Amazon, from the dread piranhas of which he never returned. Saatchi, of course, had a merry group of fawning lackeys to give him confidence, to spout on his behalf the jargon and jabberwocky of the contemporary curator, and the adulation of Sarah Kent, the gushing art critic of Time Out, mistakenly thought to have some appeal to that journal’s youngish audience, must have been a real rock of reassurance on which to build a collection of work by unknown artists — though Matthew Collings, a blokish bottom-feeder in the art world, said of her several Saatchi catalogues, ‘Blimey, they’re boring.’ Fewer than half the artists she recorded in Saatchi’s possession are names to which an informed public can now readily put images, but that is a very comfortable percentage compared with the list of three hundred young British artists published by Art and Design in 1989, a year after Saatchi’s discovery of Damien Hirst at the first and most notorious of the Freeze exhibitons,(6) of whom only sixty or so are, two decades on, still familiar.
With the piecemeal dispersal of this second collection, often for huge profits, Saatchi has been accused of betraying the nation’s heritage, of selling to foreign collectors the great icons of late twentieth-century British art. His accusers forget that he was, in a sense, as much the maker of these icons as the artists, that he enabled works that would almost certainly have remained ideas, even those of dark obsession, to be realised in the flesh — literally so in the case of sharks, sheep and cattle — and that he advanced funds, paid stipends and offered guarantees that allowed artists to fulfil whims without the anxieties of unpaid household bills. The most important of these guarantees was the certainty that Saatchi, as patron, would use his commercial skills to magnify the fame of every artist who responded as willing puppet to his patronage. There can be no doubt that just as Hirst made a shark into a work of art, Saatchi made Hirst into an artist: Serota and the Tate could never have done that.
There are those who see Saatchi as a Medici, a Gonzaga, a Charles I, a Tate, a Leverhulme, a Samuel Courtauld of his day — but he is not of their ilk, for he is as much driven to disperse as to acquire, and the interval between acquisition and dispersal has shortened. He seems, moreover, to have had no wish to enlist any of his collections as a memorial to himself or the artists whom he has sponsored. At the same time, what for years seemed his disproportionate power compared with great state institutions for the visual arts and traditional art dealers (some of them institutions too), has diminished to the point at which his activities as collector, exhibitor and seemingly inexorable force in the market place no longer matter.
Gone are the days when Saatchi and Serota seemed equal powers in the land — Serota who once, at Whitechapel, seemed so inspired and inspiring, now, at Tate Modern, reduced to the role of desiccated administrator and unloved headmaster; Saatchi, always the lively one, ingenious and provocative, now the ringmaster of a circus that has sold its clowns and acrobats.
For Saatchi it had begun to seem a running into sand, a wretched end, but suddenly, in October 2008, yet another Saatchi was revealed, sober, sane and reasonable, performing the useful service of exposing the bathetic dreadfulness of Art Now from wherever in the world he chooses. In his latest gallery, light, proportional and functional within the handsome classical skin of an early nineteenth-century army barracks in the heart of Chelsea, he has created a friendly tool with which to perform such curatorial exposures, its giant portico a thousand times more welcoming than the doom-laden entrance to Tate Modern. He has taken a quarter of a century to reach this third incarnation of his gallery and, at last, it has an air of permanence. That air raises a very serious question: with Saatchi’s death, what then? He has against a great deal of scornful opposition (including my own), performed a great good, ironically even in his Sensation exhibition. We may have cared for very little of the work he has shown us over the years, but he enabled us to see it as it happened and, looking back, my impression is that he made no particular claim for any of it, that as a curator he was dispassionate, unlike those who work for state-owned galleries and the Arts Council and invariably claim that their chosen contemporary artists have merit enough to become the Old Masters of the next generation. Saatchi, more than any man, has been, and still is, responsible for letting us see immediately Art Now in its infancy. We should honour him for it by ensuring that his latest gallery becomes a lasting relic of all that he has done for art in Britain.
- Douglas Cooper, reviewing the Tate’s Biennial Report of 1972–74, Books and Bookmen, January 1976.
- Alistair Hicks: New Art in the Saatchi Collection, Thames and Hudson, 1989.
- Catalogue of Sculpture in the Open Air, Battersea Park, 1966.
- Sir Brian McMaster: Supporting Excellence in the Arts, DCMS, 2008.
- In conversation with the author,in front of the painting when first displayed in 1991.
- Anon: ‘40 Under 40, the New Generation in Britain’, Art and Design, Vol 5¾, 1989.