Charles Saatchi has all the makings of a James Bond villain. He is masterfully powerful with a mottled international background: born in Baghdad, raised in Hampstead, he's Jewish and obsessed with brash American culture. Saatchi clawed his way up through the advertising industry, creating an empire with his brother that swayed elections (favouring Margaret Thatcher) and sold addictive vices (Silk Cut cigarettes) to the masses. He marries beautiful women, drives flash cars and builds lairs in abandoned paint factories and old government buildings. Almost as an afterthought, he has become the world's first art-collecting superstar, perhaps the only one with real name recognition beyond the art world. Yet he never shows up for events and rarely addresses outsiders. Until now.
Saatchi has released a slim volume
of answers to questions (“brutally frank” ones, in the words of his publisher) posed to him by the public and journalists from the Times
, the Sunday Times
, the Independent
, the Sunday Telegraph
and Art Newspaper
. "My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic" is certainly glib, but far from frank. The unassuming, boyish persona who emerges in Saatchi's responses feels carefully constructed. The book reads like advertising copy.
Not that the ad-man is coy about his machinations. When asked whether or not he is politically conservative, given the effectiveness of his "Labour isn't Working"
campaign, he said “I once also threw myself into the Health Department’s anti-smoking campaign, visited emphysema wards, studied pictures of cancerous lungs, and came up with the grisliest copy I could--puffing away happily as I wrote. How sweet of you to think that advertising copy is written from the heart.”
Saatchi's more paranoid critics accuse him of treating the art world like a sadistic game. His worst detractors say he snatches up immature and despicable artists, then pumps and dumps their work, leaving wrecked careers and bamboozled collectors in his wake. Others say he's guilty of nothing more than bad taste. Much of "Artoholic" is aimed at defusing the rumours that have emerged around these two poles of reproach.
No, Tracey Emin's installation of soiled bed linens, "My Bed"
(1999), did not “need to be removed because of the smell”; nor did Marc Quinn's frozen-blood cast "Self" (1991) melt during storage. Saatchi bristles at the oft-repeated suggestion that he burned down the Momart
warehouse in 2004, which housed much of his collection, and he dismisses rumours that he would ever consider displaying its ashes: “I assure you that the art inside the warehouse was more fun to look at than the charred remains. But there’s always a fire somewhere if you like looking at burnt-out buildings.”
Art insiders looking for gossipy nuggets will have already seen the best ones printed elsewhere. There are gentle swipes at Damien Hirst, who is going through an “off patch” but whose reputation will persist, he insists, alongside Jackson Pollock's, Andy Warhol's and Donald Judd's. Every other artist “will be a footnote”. County Hall
was “stupid, stupid, stupid” and Saatchi adores Larry Gagosian
, but hears the theme music from "Jaws" playing in his head when the dealer approaches.
It is too bad Saatchi skates around the best questions (“Have you ever taken advantage of anyone?” “Have you ever distorted the market?” "[Are you] a malevolent influence?”). He even leaves us hanging on seemingly easy ones, such as “Professionally, what was your greatest mistake?” But this could be his advertiser's instinct compelling him to leave us wanting more (and we do).
Actionable information on how Saatchi discovers artists is scarce. He contrasts several paintings, showing the difference between “lazy” and “good” Picassos, and admits that much of market value depends on timing rather than talent. He prowls the “grotty parts
of London on the weekends”, never buys anonymously and still attends thesis shows. “Take your time looking for something really special, because looking is half the fun," he advises. You know you are officially an art collector “once you have bought something that doesn’t fit in your home, and has to be stored in an art depot.”
Lately Saatchi has continued to burrow into the global art market. His "New Art from China" exhibition opened last year and a Middle-Eastern themed art show, "Unveiled
", will debut this year (without a single Israeli artist in it). "Artoholic" concludes by pondering whether "Sensation
" was the high-water mark of his career. Saatchi claims he has “fizzled out” and is “plodding along”, but this seems premature despite his tendency to compare himself to Citizen Kane.
Image credit: Phaidon Press Limited