In the middle of another profile of Jay Jopling (this one curiously pegged to nothing whatsoever) that appeared in the Times of London over the weekend is this brief history lesson on the role Jopling played in sidestepping critics and making art a public spectacle. In most histories of the recent art market, this function has been ascribed to the auction houses. But if we’re to take the Times seriously, it would appear that the re-birth of the art market in the midst of the early 1990s recession was directly connected to the ability of Contemporary art to speak to audiences in an unmediated way:
Some remember Jopling’s set-up being somehow magnetic, providing a central part of the script for the Young British Artist generation. Julia Royse, who set up White Cube with Jopling, calls it a “coming together of minds. It took us by surprise. We looked back a decade afterwards and went, ‘Wow’ .” The Britart phenomenon, says the curator James Putnam, “couldn’t have happened without him”. This is a common refrain: that Jopling was not a beneficiary but a co-creator of a scenario where London would become the centre of the global arts world.
True, pre-Jay there was something brewing in the UK art world, with an earlier grouping of successful galleries including Karsten Schubert and Maureen Paley’s Interim Gallery. It’s a well-chronicled scenario. As Buck says, “There was a style and audacity about Jay. You knew he’d come through.” An ex-lover said: “He was charming, a good listener. He had good pulling power.”
Jopling was becoming a pivotal figure. The year 1991 established him: he was asked to join a think-tank at the Tate Gallery by its director, Nicholas Serota. Around the same time he met Damien Hirst, his most important professional relationship (as with others, it seems to have been informal: at the pub and with Tracey Emin). The Shark — or rather, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living — dates from 1991, as does Self, Marc Quinn’s blood head: two killer Jopling sales.
This era was flipping the popular reputation of contemporary art. As the artist Richard Wentworth says: “The most you could expect in the 1970s was a short review in Artscribe magazine.” Now it was going tabloid: indeed, one of Jopling’s 1991 recommendations to Serota was that they should increase popular-press fascination. “He moved artists from the arts pages to the news pages,” says David Lee, a maverick critic who runs a magazine called The Jackdaw. “After all, who cares what the critics think?” Moreover, JJ didn’t do the tortured intellectual routine. “He never spoke in dense artspeak, which has been a strength,” says James Putnam. Accessibility was all, as was his ability to get old and new money together, or, as he once put it, “establishing a bridge between the Establishment and the avant-garde”.
Jay Jopling: The Man Who Became a Pain in the Arts (Times of London)