From Animals in Formaldehyde to NFTs, Here Are Five of Damien Hirst’s Most Controversial Works to Date


Damien Hirst, who rose to fame in the ’90s as the enfant terrible of the Young British Artists, is best known for shocking audiences with his art—from dead animals suspended in formaldehyde to floating basketballs to collections of pills—and the high price tags that have now come to accompany his works.

Hirst’s first came to prominence with his inclusion in the controversial 1988 exhibition “Freeze” that brought together several YBA artists; the show was staged while Hirst was still a student at London’s Goldsmiths College. Utilizing low-brow found objects with an entrepreneurial spirit, the YBAs exemplified a shift in what could be considered art, one that was accompanied by considerable criticism and outrage as to their art’s merit.

Hirst’s own work often centers on issues like death and systems of belief and value, in particular, focusing on the power of the art market. In September 2008, on the brink of the Great Recession, Hirst notoriously sold a body of new work at Sotheby’s, bringing in £70.5 million (around $127 million at the time) and skipping the art world’s gallery system, which would typically handle the first sales of new work. Some have argued that this ended his run “as an art-market darling,” but presently Hirst is represented by major galleries like Gagosian and White Cube. Add to this Hirst’s reputation as the U.K’s richest artist, who has amassed a serious collection of contemporary art that landed him on ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors list each year between 2008 and 2014.

In the years since, controversy has continued to follow Hirst, from designing the penthouse suite at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas in 2019 filled with his greatest hits to recent reports that his infamous diamond skull allegedly didn’t actually sell in 2007 for $100 million. His history of following the money has recently extended into his first foray into NFTs last summer. “The Currency,” a digital collection that riffs on his series of “spot” paintings, which are visually similar to the NFTs, gave buyers the option to decide between a physical painting or an NFT. In an added flair of drama, the piece not chosen would subsequently be burned.

But he is not only focused on the NFT market: his recent real-life exhibition, “Forgiving and Forgetting” at Gagosian’s 24th Street location was his first show in New York in four years. That show opened in January and was later extended until April 16. Through it all, Hirst has succeeded in keeping his name at the top of our minds.

Below, a guide to five of Hirst’s most controversial works to date.