Young British Artists. Art Movements of 1990s
Young British Artists
Young British Artists or YBAs (also referred to as Brit artists and Britart) is the name given to a group of conceptual artists, painters, sculptors and installation artists based in the United Kingdom, most (though not all) of whom attended Goldsmiths College in London.
The term Young British Artists is derived from shows of that name staged at the Saatchi Gallery from 1992 onwards, which brought the artists to fame. It has become a historic term, as most of the YBAs are now in their forties. They are noted for “shock tactics”, use of throwaway materials and wild-living, and are (or were) associated with the Hoxton area of East London. They achieved considerable media coverage and dominated British art during the 1990s.
Leading artists of the group are Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Key works by them are, respectively, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine, and My Bed, a dishevelled double bed surrounded by detritus.
The core of the later YBAs originated in 1988, at a time when public funding for art was not readily available (and had been reduced by the Thatchergovernment). A group of 16 Goldsmiths College students took part in an exhibition called Freeze, of which Damien Hirst became the main organiser—as he was still in his second year at the college. Commercial galleries had shown a lack of interest in the project, and it was held in a cheap alternative space, a London Docklands admin block (usually referred to as a warehouse). The event resonated with the ‘Acid House’ warehouse rave scene prevalent at the time, but did not achieve any major press exposure. One of its effects was to set the example of artist-as-curator (in the mid 1990s artist-run exhibition spaces and galleries became a feature of the London arts scene).
- View of East Country Yard Show with Anya Gallaccio’s installation in foreground, 1990.
In liaison with Hirst, Carl Freedman (who had been friends with him in Leeds before Hirst moved to London and was helping to make Hirst’s vitrines) and Billee Sellman then curated two influential “warehouse” shows in 1990,Modern Medicine and Gambler, in a Bermondsey former factory they designated Building One. To stage Modern Medicine they raised £1,000 sponsorships from artworld figures including Charles Saatchi. Freedman has spoken openly about the self-fulfilling prophecy these sponsors helped to create, and also commented that not many people attended these early shows, including Freeze. In 1990, Henry Bond and Sarah Lucas organized the East Country Yard Show in a disused warehouse in London Docklands which was installed over four floors and 16,000 square metres of exhibition space. Writing in The Independent, art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon said,
Goldsmiths’ graduates are unembarrassed about promoting themselves and their work: some of the most striking exhibitions in London over the past few months—”The East Country Yard Show”, or “Gambler”, both staged in docklands—have been independently organized and funded by Goldsmiths’ graduates as showcases for their work. This has given them a reputation for pushiness, yet it should also be said that in terms of ambition, attention to display and sheer bravado there has been little to match such shows in the country’s established contemporary art institutions. They were far superior, for instance, to any of the contemporary art shows that have been staged by the Liverpool Tate in its own multi-million-pound dockland site.
Established alternative spaces such as City Racing at the Oval in London and Milch gave many artists their first exposure. There was much embryonic activity in the Hoxton/Shoreditcharea of East London focused on Joshua Compston’s gallery. In 1991 the Serpentine Gallery presented a survey of this group of artists with the exhibition Broken English, in part curated by Hirst. It was not until 1992 that Saatchi staged a series of exhibitions at his gallery and devised the name Young British Art. The first show featured the work of Hirst, Sarah Lucas,Mark Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread.
A second wave of Young British Artists appeared in 1992-3 through exhibitions such as ‘New Contemporaries’, ‘New British Summertime’ and ‘Minky Manky’ (curated by Carl Freedman). This included Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland, Fiona Banner, Tracey Emin, Tacita Dean, Georgina Starr and Jane and Louise Wilson. One exhibition which included several of theYBA artists was the 1995 quin-annual British Art Show.
The Saatchi Effect
One of the visitors to Freeze was Charles Saatchi, a major contemporary art collector and co-founder of Saatchi and Saatchi, the London advertising agency. Saatchi then visitedGambler in a green Rolls Royce and, according to Freedman, stood open-mouthed with astonishment in front of (and then bought) Hirst’s first major “animal” installation, A Thousand Years, consisting of a large glass case containing maggots and flies feeding off a rotting cow’s head. (The installation was later a notable feature of the Sensation exhibition.)
Saatchi became not only Hirst’s main collector, but also the main sponsor for other YBAs–a fact openly acknowledged by Gavin Turk. The contemporary art market in London had dramatically collapsed in mid-1990 due to a major economic recession, and many commercial contemporary galleries had gone out of business. Saatchi had until this time collected mostly American and German contemporary art, some by young artists, but most by already established ones.
His collection was publicly exhibited in a series of shows in a large converted factory building in St John’s Wood, north London. Previous Saatchi Gallery shows had included such major figures as Warhol, Guston, Alex Katz, Serra, Kiefer, Polke, Richter and many more. Now Saatchi turned his attention to the new breed of Young British Artists. There was much concern when Saatchi divested himself of some of his earlier collection, since it had a significant downward effect on the value of some of the artists whose works he sold.
Saatchi invented the name “Young British Artists” for a series of shows called by it, starting in 1992, when a noted exhibit was Damien Hirst’s “shark” (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living), which became the iconic work of British art in th 1990s, and the symbol of Britart worldwide. In addition to (and as a direct result of) Saatchi’s patronage, the Young British Artists benefited from intense media coverage. This was augmented by controversy surrounding the annual Turner Prize, (one of Britain’s few major awards for contemporary artists), which had several of the artists as nominees or winners. Channel 4 had become a sponsor of the competition, leading to television profiles of the artists in prime-time slots.
The Young British Artists re-vitalised (and in some cases spawned) a whole new generation of contemporary commercial galleries such as Karsten Schubert, Sadie Coles, Victoria Miro,Maureen Paley’s Interim Art, Jay Jopling’s White Cube, and Antony Wilkinson Gallery. The spread of interest improved the market for contemporary British art magazines through increased advertising and circulation. Frieze launched in 1991 embraced the YBAs from the start while established publications such as Art Monthly, Art Review, Modern Painters andContemporary Art were all re-launched with more focus on emerging British Artists. Hirst had become an internationally recognised major artist, with shows in Europe and the USA.
Becoming the establishment
The consolidation of the artists’ status began in 1995 with a large-scale group exhibition Brilliant! held at the Walker Art Center a respected art museum in Minneapolis, USA.
The term “yBa” was coined by Simon Ford in a feature “Myth Making” in March 1996 in Art Monthly magazine.
In 1997 the Royal Academy, which has a reputation as a bastion of conservatism, staged a major, exhibition of their work, Sensation.
Myra by Marcus Harvey, 1995
The exhibition was actually a showing of Charles Saatchi’s private collection of their work, and he owned the major pieces. The liaison was effected by the Academy’s Norman Rosenthal, even though there was strong opposition from some of the Academicians, three of whom resigned. Controversy engendered in the media about the show, particularly over Marcus Harvey’s work Myra, served to reinforce the YBAs’ importance. When the show toured to New York there was further controversy caused by the inclusion of Chris Ofili’s work.
In 1999 Tracey Emin was nominated for the Turner Prize. Her main exhibit, My Bed, consisting literally of her dishevelled, stained bed, surrounded by detritus including condoms, slippers and soiled underwear, created an immediate and lasting media impact and further heightened her prominence. The emergence at the same time of an anti-YBA group, The Stuckists, co-founded by her ex boyfriend, Billy Childish, gave another angle to media coverage.
The opening of Tate Modern in 2000 did not provide any major accolade for the YBAs (initially Hirst was only represented by one piece in a corridor by a toilet), but their inclusion was another affirmation that their status was not open to real questioning. Prospective retrospectives by Hirst were stymied by the fact that Saatchi and not the Tate owned all his important pieces. There were at one time three videos showing by Emin, who subsequently had a room dedicated to her work in Tate Britain: this was on display for a year, before being put in storage.
In Spring 2003 Saatchi opened a new gallery in London, housed in the County Hall building on the South Bank and the previous Saatchi Gallery in St John’s Wood was closed. The new Saatchi Gallery initially exhibited the work of the Young British Artists, with a retrospective by Hirst (from which he disassociated himself) until Charles Saatchi’s new interests were demonstrated in a series The Triumph of Painting.
On 24 May 2004, a fire in a storage warehouse destroyed some important works from the Saatchi collection, including the Chapman Brothers’Hell and Tracey Emin’s “tent”, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995.
British pathologist, Austin Gresham, wrote a handbook, A Colour Atlas of Forensic Pathology, in 1975. Mat Collishaw said it became “the Britart bible”, as a source for explicit images of dead bodies for artwork.
The Young British Artists from an early stage were more socially than aesthetically connected. Sarah Lucas has had relationships with, in turn, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume and Angus Fairhurst. Gillian Wearing had relationships with Mark Wallinger and Michael Landy. Tracey Emin had a relationship with Carl Freedman and then Mat Collishaw. Fiona Rae dated Stephen Park for several years, and then Richard Patterson for a similar duration. Sam Taylor-Wood has dated Gary Hume, Jake Chapman and was married to Jay Jopling. Writing in his book Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, the commentator Gregor Muir said,
The second part of ‘Lucky Kunst’, featuring a group of young artists from New York, opened some weeks later. We seemed to lose Sam [Taylor-Wood] shortly after the opening of part one, later finding out that she had split with partner Jake Chapman for artist Henry Bond, a well-known Goldsmiths graduate. In the early days, Bond had formed part of a clique with fellow Goldsmiths artist Liam Gillick; his then partner Angela Bulloch, had gone out with Damien Hirst before Hirst went out with Maia Norman, Jay Jopling’s former partner. Taylor-Wood would eventually split with Henry Bond and marry Jopling while Liam Gillick went on to marry Sarah Morris, one of the American artists featured in part two of ‘Lucky Kunst.’
Places where it would be possible to spot YBAs included the Groucho Club, St. John (a restaurant specialising in offal) and (in the early years) pubs around Hoxton, such as the Bricklayer’s Arms. Hoxton is known as the heartland of the British contemporary art scene of the time.
Richard Cork (at one time art critic of The Times) has been a staunch advocate of the artists, as has art writer Louisa Buck, and former Time Out art editor, Sarah Kent. Sir Nicholas Serota has validated the artists by the nomination of several of them for the Turner Prize and their inclusion in the Tate collection.
Maureen Paley said, “The thing that came out of the YBA generation was boldness, a belief that you can do anything.”
Speaking in 2009, Iwona Blazwick the director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery said, “The YBA moment is definitely now dead, but anyone who thinks they were a cut-off point is wrong. They began something which has continued to grow ever since. It’s not over.”
In 1998, John Windsor in The Independent said that the work of the YBAs seemed tame compared with that of the “shock art” of the 1970s, including “kinky outrages” at the Nicholas Treadwell Gallery, amongst which were a “hanging, anatomically detailed leather straitjacket, complete with genitals”, titled Pink Crucifixion, by Mandy Havers.
In 1999 the Stuckists art group was founded with an overt anti-YBA agenda. In 2002 Britart was heavily criticised by the leading conductor Sir Simon Rattle, who was, in return, accused of having a poor understanding of conceptual and visual art. Playwright Tom Stoppard also made a public denunciation, and Brian Sewell (art critic of the Evening Standard) has consistently been hostile, as has David Lee, the editor of Jackdaw. Rolf Harris, the television presenter and artist, singled out Tracey Emin’s My Bed as the kind of installation that put people off art. “I don’t see how getting out of bed and leaving the bed unmade and putting it on show and saying that’s worth, I don’t know £31,000 … I don’t believe it, I think it’s a con.”
For James Heartfield “The 1990s art boom encouraged sloppiness. The Young British Artists preferred the inspired gesture to patient work. They added public outrage to the their palettes, only to find that it faded very quickly.”
Artists exhibited in Freeze
- Steven Adamson
- Angela Bulloch
- Mat Collishaw
- Ian Davenport
- Angus Fairhurst
- Anya Gallaccio
- Damien Hirst
- Gary Hume
- Michael Landy
- Abigail Lane
- Sarah Lucas
- Lala Meredith-Vula
- Richard Patterson
- Stephen Park
- Fiona Rae
Dominic Denis was listed in the catalogue but did not exhibit.