British art entered a new era in the late 1980s which was quickly recognised as new and excitingly distinctive and became known as the Young British Artists.
Most of the YBAs studied at Goldsmiths College, in London, under the influence of Michael Craig Martin, who is one of the college’s most significant teachers, who had been for some years fostering new forms of creativity through its courses, including ideas such as eliminating the traditional separation of the media of art.
1988 Freeze Exhibition Organized By Damien Hirst
The YBAs emerged for the first time at the Freeze exhibition in 1988, a time when public funding for art was not readily available and had been reduced by the Thatcher government. The Freeze exhibition was organised by one of the YBA’s Damien Hirst, who was still a student at Goldsmiths College. The rest of the YBA’s who took part in the Freeze exhibition were a group of 16 Goldsmiths College students.
‘A Thousand Years’ by Damien Hirst
Commercial galleries had shown a lack of interest in the project, and it was held in a cheap alternative space, a warehouse in London Docklands. However the event did not achieve any major press exposure. One of its effects was to set the example of artist-as-curator. This notion of artists running their own exhibition spaces and galleries became a feature of the London arts scene during the mid 1990s.
The label YBA turned out to be a powerful brand and marketing tool, but of course it concealed huge diversity. Nevertheless certain broad trends both formal and thematic can be discerned. What the movement mostly embraced was a complete openness towards the materials and processes with which art can be made and the form that it can take.
Hirst then went onto curate two other influential shows: ‘Modern Medicine’ and ‘Gambler’ in 1990 alongside Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman. To stage ‘Modern Medicine’ they raised £1,000 sponsorships from art world figures including Charles Saatchi.
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. Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote about what was happening in a July 31, 1990 article in The Independent:
“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”…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.”
The Saatchi Outcome
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 visited ‘Gambler’ and was so impressed by 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, that he bought it.
Saatchi went on to become not only Hirst’s main collector, but also the main sponsor for other YBAs. Saatchi publicly exhibited his collection 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.
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’ which became the iconic work of British art in the 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. Also Channel 4 had become a sponsor of the competition, leading to television profiles of the artists in prime-time slots.
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.
My Bed by Tracey Emin. Emin’s piece was short-listed the Turner Prize in 1999.
The opening of Tate Modern in 2000 did not provide any major accolade for the YBAs, but their inclusion was another affirmation that their status was not open to real questioning.
Saatchi opened a new gallery in London in 2003, on the South Bank and shut the previous Saatchi Gallery in St John’s Wood. The new gallery initially exhibited the work of the Young British Artists, with a retrospective by Hirst until Charles Saatchi’s new interests were demonstrated in a series ‘The Triumph of Painting’.
- Andrew Graham-Dixon, “The Midas Touch?: Graduates of Goldsmiths’ School of Art dominate the current British art scene,” The Independent, 31 July 1990, p. 13.