Young British Artists - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Young British Artists
London in the 1980s lagged far behind New York and West Berlin as an art center. Architecturally dilapidated and widely economically deprived despite the growth of its finance industry, the British capital had far fewer contemporary galleries and little in the way of a postmodern art scene compared to its wealthier, more culturally edgy American and German counterparts. Artists in these countries were involved in cutting edge postmodern movements such as the Pictures Generation, Street art, and Neue Wilden, with nothing similar in London.
The Young British Artists, most of whom were in their early to mid-20s at the time, reacted to these challenging circumstances with vigor and optimism. They saw this difficult environment as an opportunity for growth, achieving initial success by putting on exhibitions in cheap warehouse spaces in the city's industrial wastelands.
Many of the artists associated with the YBA art movement studied in the B.A. Fine Art program at Goldsmiths College of Art in London between 1987 and 1990. They were hugely influenced by program leader and artist Michael Craig-Martin, whose deep personal dedication to art as a serious pursuit and belief in the value of creative difference instilled a solid and unwavering work ethic in many of his young students. Craig-Martin has described the peculiar chemistry among the YBA generation of students and their fashioning of a close, supportive bond that would last many years and enable ever more successes.
Organized and curated by Damien Hirst, the most notorious YBA, while he was in the second year of his degree at Goldsmiths (1988), Freeze was an exhibition that heralded the beginning of the group's dominance and transformation of London's artistic landscape. Hirst staged the show in an abandoned London Port Authority building in the abandoned docklands area of the city, and invited fellow students such as Sarah Lucas, Mat Collishaw, Angus Fairhurst, Anya Gallaccio, and Michael Landy to exhibit alongside him.
Freeze has since entered into art world mythology, with many more people now claiming to have visited than actually did, according to Hirst. The exhibitors' tutor, Michael Craig-Martin, used his connections to bring important museum curators Norman Rosenthal and Nicholas Serota to the show. It was here too that the group's work first caught the attention of art collector and advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, who would later become their best-known patron and sponsor.
Freeze the exhibition is not to be confused with Frieze - the art magazine that later started the international art fair of the same name.
The London Art Scene after YBA
International interest in the YBAs grew during the 1990s as the group's reputation started to have a strong impact on London's gallery scene; sales of art magazines (such as Frieze and Art Review) that were based in the city also benefitted. New spaces that were established around this time - such as Jay Jopling's White Cube, Sadie Coles HQ and Maureen Paley Interim Art - showcased many of the YBA's work and shared in their financial success.
The YBAs rebelled against the traditional British artist's career path, whereby they were expected to do their time - producing work for years and participating in small group shows before finally achieving successful solo exhibitions and being bought into important museum collections. The work of the YBA's instead achieved unprecedented sales for large amounts of money very early in their careers, often straight out of art school.
Although they were supported by a number of gallerists and collectors, the best-known and most generous of them was the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, who has become one of the most important post-war art collectors and key to the success of YBA. After first encountering their work at Freeze, he decided to use his considerable financial sway to promote British art, rather than the German and American pieces he had previously favored.
As well as amassing a huge collection that included works by major and lesser-known YBAs, Saatchi also regularly exhibited the group throughout the 1990s in his gallery in St John's Wood in north London (the venue that Hirst had used as inspiration when designing Freeze). Thanks to his industry connections, Saatchi was also able to ensure the group received a huge amount of media coverage that served to increase the hype surrounding them.
The group's absorption into the establishment was firmly cemented when the Royal Academy of Art in London staged the now notorious Sensation exhibition in 1997, which later toured New York and Berlin, events that introduced the artists internationally. The artworks on show were all from the collection of Charles Saatchi (and he co-curated the exhibit), which necessarily broadened out the list of artists associated with the movement beyond those that had attended Goldsmiths. Artists who became known as part of the group for the first time included Chris Ofili and Rachel Whiteread.
As well as better known works such as Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living, curator Norman Rosenthal included some outstandingly controversial pieces that caused widespread offense, especially in the US and UK. The most notable of these were Marcus Harvey's Myra - an image of the serial child murderess Myra Hindley constructed from multiple infant handprints, and The Holy Virgin Mary by Catholic artist Chris Ofili, which featured elephant dung. Ofili's piece caused outrage when it was on show at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Mayor Rudolph Guiliani threatened to cut all $7 million of state funding to the institution after receiving many complaints from local religious leaders and the show was picketed relentlessly by religious organizations.
Young British Artists: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
YBA artists worked in a variety of media and experimented widely with various art forms -updating traditional genres such as portraiture and pushing the boundaries of conceptual art with disturbing, sometimes sensational, pieces. This lack of coherence in their work is indicative of postmodernism and the YBAs remain one of the best examples of contemporary challenges to traditional definitions of art.
Many YBAs appropriated found objects in their art - whether as visual puns in sculpture (Sarah Lucas), full-sized reconstructions of real environments (Michael Landy and Tracey Emin) or appropriation of organic materials to make statements about life and death (Damien Hirst). Marcel Duchamp and his readymades in particular had paved the way for the group to use whatever they wanted in their work and call it art, and they were consciously building on the same questions around originality and authorship that the Dadaists had raised earlier in the century. In 1980s New York, the Neo-Conceptual group, most notably Jeff Koons and Sherrie Levine, were also using found objects in their work to challenge ideas of authenticity in a similar way.
Although installation art was hardly new when the YBAs started making work in the late 1980s (Allan Kaprow had first developed his 'environments' - widely thought of as the first installations - in 1957), they succeeded in pushing the medium in new and innovative directions that reflected their individual artistic concerns. Tracey Emin's Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1998), for example, continued to use her own life experience as fodder by inviting viewers to crawl inside a tent embroidered with the names of all the artist's bedfellows. Cornelia Parker's Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) was made from pieces of a garden shed hung as if they were caught mid-explosion, raising questions of control and movement.
Drawing remained a central element in many of the YBA's practices, even as they experimented with more contemporary media such as installation and photography. For many critics, this continued engagement with the most ancient of artistic skills connected the group's work to the canon of art history, giving it more weight in the eyes of art audiences who otherwise thought of them as too conceptual. Michael Landy, Tracey Emin, and brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman all have well-established drawing practices, exploring such diverse themes as weeds on the streets of London, traumatic memories of abortion, and the grotesque.
Many YBAs have used all or part of themselves in their work to variously explore ideas of authorship and identity. By using their own faces, they also reflected on and boosted their own roles as art celebrities - many British people will now recognize Sarah Lucas from her photographic self-portrait, Eating A Banana (1990), for example, in which she used her androgynous appearance to examine notions of sexual identity and stereotypes. Gavin Turk also became well-known for using a disguised version of himself (as Elvis, Andy Warhol, or Joseph Beuys, for example) in sculptures and photographs to comment on the nature of celebrity culture and the myth of the artist genius. Jenny Saville, however, is probably the most controversial YBA who works with self-portraiture as she is known for nude images of herself.
Later Developments - After Young British Artists
Many of the artists originally labelled YBAs are now in their fifties, and continue to make enormously popular art that consistently fetches top prices at auction. Hirst's work is especially lucrative and has enabled him to amass a massive fortune - his personal net worth was estimated at between $400 million and $1 billion as of July 2015. This financial astuteness and entrepreneurial skill is viewed by many commentators, in the UK at least, as the YBA's main legacy.
The gallery scene in London remains one of the most influential in the world, with spaces such as White Cube and Sadie Coles still riding high on their initial early '90s success in selling the work of the YBAs, meaning the city remains one of the most vibrant contemporary art centers in the world. The Turner Prize, established in 1984, began to garner more attention once the YBAs came on to the art scene. It is annually given to a British artist under the age of 50 working in any media.
Artists today still make work that tackles the same themes as the YBAs did in the '90s. Contemporary sculptors such as American Darren Bader and Austrian Valentin Ruhry, for example, continue to engage with the notion of the readymade in their own way, while female artists such as Marie Jacotey-Voyatzis and French video artist Laure Prouvost play with themes of autobiography and modern womanhood in a way that is comparable to Tracey Emin.
Damien Hirst is cited as a direct influence by Takashi Murakami, known as the 'Japanese Warhol' for his hugely profitable, factory-like studios in New York and Japan that are run in a similar way to Hirst's in the UK. The political activist and superstar of Chinese art, Ai Weiwei, operates his internationally successful practice in a similar way - with enormous studios in China and a team of assistants. Weiwei's large installations made from vases dipped in primary-colored paint also have a strong aesthetic resonance with Hirst's Spot Paintings.
A number of YBAs are now a firm part of the very establishment they were once distinct from. Several members of the group - including Emin, Gary Hume, and Michael Landy - have been elected as Royal Academicians (members of the Royal Academy of Art in Piccadilly in London, the UK's pre-eminent institution for the arts). Hume, Emin, Lucas, and Ofili have also represented the United Kingdom at the Venice Biennale, while Whiteread, Hirst, and Ofili have been awarded the Turner Prize.