Young British Artists
Postmodernist Art Group Associated with Freeze and Sensation Exhibitions.

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Young British Artists (YBAs)


Characteristics of YBA Style
Impact on UK Art
Freeze Exhibition (1988) and Others
Charles Saatchi
Turner Prize Winners
Britart: 2000 onwards
Famous Artworks By Young British Artists
Top Contemporary Artists

Death 2003. Painted Bronze Sculpture by Jake and Dinos Chapman. Private Collection.
Short-listed for the 2003 Turner Prize. A typically shocking "work of art" by two of
the best known but controversial Young British Artists.

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During the late 1980s and 90s, postmodernist art in Britain was revitalized by the emergence of a confident new generation of postmodernist artists, later dubbed Young British Artists. Belonging to no particular movement, or style of art, they included a diverse mix of painters, sculptors, video/installation artists and photographers, with no shared characteristics other than their youth, their nationality and their involvement in contemporary art. Their work is often called Britart. YBAs came to notice because of three art exhibitions: Freeze (1988) and Modern Medicine (1990), both curated by an unknown Goldsmiths' College art student called Damien Hirst (b.1965), and Sensation (1997), held at the Royal Academy. From 1988 onwards, the principal YBA sponsor was the millionaire collector Charles Saatchi, whose patronage helped to make London the European capital of postmodernism. The term Young British Artists comes from the title of six exhibitions of that name held at the Saatchi Gallery in London, during the period 1992-6. Now very much part of the British arts establishment, YBAs have featured as regular winners of the Turner Prize, and have been elected members of the London Royal Academy. They have been exhibited in many of the best galleries of contemporary art in Europe. As well as Hirst, notable artists associated with the Young British Artists 'movement' include: Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Douglas Gordon, Marcus Harvey, Gary Hume, Rachel Whiteread, Gillian Wearing, Mark Wallinger, Marc Quinn, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville and others.

Note: For a comparison with avant-garde art from an earlier era, see: Modern British Sculpture (1930-70) and Contemporary British Painting (1960-2000).


Young British Artists: Definition/Membership

The term Young British Artists was really no more than a marketing tool to promote UK contemporary art during the 1990s. Strictly speaking, it includes only those artists who showed at Freeze, or Sensation. However, the name is also used in a broader sense to embrace all progressive, avant-garde British artists who achieved recognition during the late 1980s and 90s. A new term Post-YBAs has been coined to describe British artists emerging in the 2000s. They include Darren Almond, Mike Nelson, Tim Noble, Oliver Payne, Nick Relph, Eva Rothschild, Simon Starling, David Thorpe, Sue Webster, Carey Young, and others.

Characteristics of YBA Style of Art

Works by Young British Artists include all forms of painting, a wide range of sculpture and assemblage, contemporary video and installation art, a variety of photography, and conceptual art. If they have anything in common, it is probably an anything-goes attitude to materials and the creative process. Thus famous works of Britart have included: maggots (Hirst); dead animals (Hirst); concrete casts of whole houses (Rachel Whiteread); a bed surrounded by highly personal detritus including condoms (Tracey Emin); crushed found objects with a steamroller (Cornelia Parker); elephant dung (Chris Ofili); and frozen blood (Marc Quinn), to name but a few of the many and varied materials employed. Numerous YBA works have also employed a number of controversial references (such as Jenny Saville's paintings of grossly obese nude female forms, or the Chapman brothers' savagely mutilated shop-window dummies), in order to shock. Yet others have taken conceptual art to its limits. Witness Mark Wallinger's Turner Prize exhibit - a 2-hour film of a person wandering around an art gallery in a bear suit; or Gillian Wearing's video of actors dressed in police uniforms who stand still for an hour, in silence; or Martin Creed's installation of a white room with a single light bulb blinking on and off.


Impact on UK Art

YBAs have been heavily criticized for their lack of craftsmanship and other artistic qualities, by numerous art critics as well as such luminaries as the composer Simon Rattle, and the playwright Tom Stoppard. Yet others, including the British public have given Britart a very enthusiastic reception, as has - in general - the visual arts establishment. One reason for this, is that Young British Artists have refreshed and revitalised almost every medium of contemporary art, visibly raising museum attendance figures in the process. Furthermore, they have re-vitalised a whole new generation of contemporary galleries - including Jay Jopling's White Cube, Victoria Miro, Karsten Schubert, Sadie Coles, Maureen Paley's Interim Art, and Antony Wilkinson Gallery - significantly increased the circulation of contemporary British art magazines - including Frieze, Art Monthly, Art Review, Modern Painters and Contemporary Art.

YBA History

The 1980s in Britain was a time of radical political and economic change. It also saw the 1984 launch of the Turner Prize for contemporary art, as well as the emergence of advertising mogul Charles Saatchi as Britain's most important post-war art collector. Saatchi began showing his collection to the public in 1985, from his gallery in St John's Wood. Early acquisitions were in the area of Minimalism and Neo-Expressionism, along with a substantial holding of works by Andy Warhol. (See also: Andy Warhol's Pop Art of the 60s and 70s.) The 1980s was also a highpoint for Goldsmiths' College, part of the University of London, which offered a highly progressive arts program under such influential teachers as Michael Craig Martin. Nearly all of the 42 YBAs who showed at the Sensation exhibition trained at Goldsmiths.

Freeze Exhibition 1988

Against this backdrop, a 2nd-year Goldsmiths' student Damien Hirst organized an exhibition of work by himself and 16 other Goldsmiths' College students, in a large disused building in the Docklands area of east London. Entitled Freeze, the show was made possible by the economic recession which had 'emptied' such properties. Although the event did not achieve any significant press exposure, it attracted a number of prestigious visitors, including Charles Saatchi, who purchased the majority of the exhibits. Looking back, Saatchi admitted it wasn't the quality of the art which really turned his head as a collector, "What really stood out was the hopeful swagger of it all."

Other YBA Exhibitions

After graduating from Goldsmiths' in 1989, Hirst achieved a major breakthrough in 1990 when he co-curated two more influential 'warehouse' shows, in a Bermondsey factory. At the Modern Medicine exhibition, Saatchi reportedly was gob-smacked by Hirst's installation A Thousand Years. Saatchi immediately bought the piece thus initiating a long and fruitful business relationship with the young artist. Up until now, Saatchi's main focus had been on established figures like Andy Warhol, Phillip Guston, Alex Katz, Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Donald Judd and others. Now he turned his attention to the new upcoming group of YBAs.

Also in 1990, YBAs Henry Bond and Sarah Lucas curated the East Country Yard Show, whose exhibits were displayed over 16,000 square metres of space. Although overall visitor attendance figures remained low, the show captured the attention of critics and some collectors, and signalled the coming rise of Britart.

According to Andrew Graham-Dixon, art critic of The Independent, the YBA shows were far superior to comparable events held at any of the country's established contemporary art institutions, including the Liverpool Tate new multi-million-pound venue. As a result, commercial galleries - such as Joshua Compston's gallery (Shoreditch) and the Serpentine Gallery (Hyde Park) began showcasing YBA works. Soon after this, a new wave of YBAs appeared in exhibitions such as New Contemporaries, New British Summertime and Minky Manky. Among them was the Anglo-Cypriot artist Tracey Emin (b.1963).


Charles Saatchi Patronage (1992-97)

Not long after the 1991 Serpentine show, the Saatchi Gallery began a series of six exhibitions devoted exclusively to YBA art, entitled Young British Artists I-VI. Staged during the period 1992-1996, these shows not only established the label "Young British Artists", which turned out to be a very potent marketing tool, but also generated massive media coverage for many late 20th century painters and contemporary artists from Britain, thus helping them to establish their reputations at home and abroad. Thus for example, in 1995, Britart crossed the Atlantic with its large-scale group show entitled Brilliant! held at the respected Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA; while Damien Hirst's pickled shark (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) became a worldwide symbol of avant-garde British art in the final decade of the 20th century.

Finally, in 1997, in a show of official recognition of the movement, Saatchi was permitted to co-curate the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, which featured works by 42 YBAs from his private collection. Thanks to Charles Saatchi, Young British Artists were now part of the postmodernist establishment.

Turner Prize Winners

Further recognition followed. A number of YBAs were shortlisted for the annual Turner Prize, one of the UK's few major awards for contemporary artists, and duly received additional TV exposure on Channel 4, the competition's sponsor. Members of the 'YBA movement' among the Turner Prize winners, include: Rachel Whiteread (1993), Damien Hirst (1995), Douglas Gordon (1996), Gillian Wearing (1997), Chris Ofili (1998), Steve McQueen (1999), Mark Wallinger (2007).

Britart: 2000 Onwards

Ironically, the launch in 2000 of the Tate Modern - Britain's premier museum for contemporary art- did not provide a particular boost for YBAs, although the inclusion of their works confirmed that they had definitely 'arrived.' In early 2003, the Saatchi Gallery moved from St John's Wood to the County Hall building on the South Bank, and began its coverage of Britart with a retrospective of Damien Hirst. Then in May 2004, a fire in Saatchi's storage warehouse caused the destruction of several important works, including Tracey Emin's Everyone I Have Ever Slept With: 1963–1995. In the same year, Saatchi declared that most YBAs would proved "nothing but footnotes" in history, and proceeded to sell a large number of YBA works - many of which at a huge profit.

Famous Artworks By Young British Artists

Examples of well-known works by YBAs can be seen in some of the best art museums in the UK. Here is a short selected list of works. All works are held by the Saatchi Gallery London, unless indicated. In addition, works by YBAs can be seen in some of the Best Contemporary Art Festivals around the world.

Jake and Dinos Chapman (b.1962 and 1966)
Hell (1999-2000)

Sarah Lucas (b.1962)
Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992)
Pauline Bunny (1997) Tate Collection, London

Tracey Emin (b.1963)
Everyone I have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (1995)
My Bed (1999)

Rachel Whiteread (b.1963)
Untitled (Freestanding Bed) (1991) Southampton Art Gallery

Marcus Harvey (b.1963)
Myra (1995)

Fiona Rae (b.1963)
Untitled (Emergency Room) Tate Collection

Marc Quinn (b.1964)
Self (1991) Private Collection

Damien Hirst (b.1965)
A Thousand Years (1990)
The Physical Impossibility of Death... (1991) Private Collection
Pharmacy (1992) Tate Collection, London
For the Love of God (2007) White Cube Gallery

Ian Davenport (b.1966)
Poured Lines: Light Orange, Blue, Yellow, Dark Green, Orange (1995) Hayward Gallery

Glen Brown (b.1966)
Dali-Christ (1992)

Chris Ofili (b.1968)
Holy Virgin Mary (1996)

Martin Creed (b.1968)
227: The Lights Going On and Off (2001) Artist Rooms Collection

Jenny Saville (b.1970)
Hybrid (1997)
Untitled (1990) Private Collection

Peter Davies (b.1970)
The Hip One Hundred (1998)

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