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Young British Artists

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Young British Artists or YBAs (also 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 an 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.


Critic Matthew Collings commented on the YBAs, when reviewing the show Brilliant!: New Art From London, held at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis in 1995:

Nobody can quite sum up what they stand for. The advance publicity of Brilliant! presents them as cheeky cockneys and punk rockers oppressed by the Thatcher junta, dodging IRA bombs, living in squats, and making rough and ready art that screams with rage and isn't intended for pristine white gallery space, but for rough and ready warehouse spaces in London's cockney East End. In reality of course they are highly sophisticated formalists who desperately, and quite rightly, want to show in pristine white spaces like the Tate Gallery and the Walker Art Centre.



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 Thatcher government). 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 art scene).

Other shows

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 succeeded in raising £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.

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/ Shoreditch area of East London focused on Joshua Compston's gallery. In 1991 the Serpentine Gallery presented the first survey of the new generation 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 The Wilson Sisters. The composition of the YBAs at their height is documented in the catalogue for the 1995 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 visited Gambler 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). 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 and Contemporary Art were all re-launched with more focus on emerging British Artists. The British art establishment was solidly validating the pre-eminence of the YBAs. Hirst had become an internationally recognised major artist, with shows in Europe and the USA.

Becoming the Establishment: Sensation

The consolidation of the YBAs' status was in 1997, when the Royal Academy, which has a reputation as a bastion of conservatism, staged a major, definitive exhibition of their work, Sensation. This 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 even greater controversy caused by Chris Ofili's work.

Post Sensation

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 dissasociated 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.

Social relationships

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 to Gary Hume, Jake Chapman and is currently linked to Jay Jopling. 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 conceptual art (i.e.Britart).



Richard Cork (then 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.


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."

YBAs who had exhibited at 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.

Other YBAs

  • Fiona Banner
  • Christine Borland
  • Simon Callery
  • The Chapman Brothers - Dinos & Jake
  • Tacita Dean
  • Tracey Emin
  • Liam Gillick
  • Martin Maloney
  • Steve McQueen
  • Chris Ofili
  • Marc Quinn
  • Jenny Saville
  • Georgina Starr
  • Sam Taylor-Wood
  • Gavin Turk
  • Keith Tyson
  • Gillian Wearing
  • Rachel Whiteread
  • The Wilson Sisters (Jane and Louise)
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