A group of conceptual British artists, mainly born in the 1960s, first gathered together by Damien Hirst in 1988 to take part in an exhibition called Freeze. The phenomenon is also known as ‘Britart’.
The 'Young British Artists I' exhibition
The term YBA was coined following the show Young British Artists I, featuring work by Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread, held at the Saatchi Gallery in London, 1992. Many of the artists known as YBAs trained at Goldsmiths College of Art in London under Michael Craig Martin. The YBAs developed a notorious reputation for exploring blatant shock tactics and pushing the boundaries of common decency, often leading to the derogatory press coverage that became a catalyst for their success. They also experimented with unconventional materials including found objects and images, blending high and low media in a postmodern approach typical of the 1980s and 1990s. Many YBAs turned the traditional role of the struggling artist on its head, reaching high levels of success during, or just after leaving art school and they are now some of the wealthiest artists in the world.
Who were the YBAs?
In the 1980s the London art scene lagged behind New York and Berlin, with few contemporary art galleries in the city. In 1988, while still in his second year at Goldsmiths Damien Hirst organised Freeze in an abandoned London Port Authority Building in the docklands. Fellow students taking part included Sarah Lucas, Mat Collishaw, Angus Fairhurst, Anya Gallaccio and Michael Landy. Their tutor, Michael Craig Martin, invited a number of curators including Norman Rosenthal and Nicholas Serota. Also invited was the art collector and advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, who would become one of their most prominent patrons. He used his media connections to ensure press coverage for the young artists and regularly exhibited their work in his gallery in St John’s Wood.
Sensation and the international art scene
International interest in British art grew during the 1990s and new gallery spaces were set up including Jay Jopling’s White Cube, Sadie Coles HQ and Maureen Paley’s Interim Art. In 1997 the Royal Academy housed the huge survey exhibition Sensation, curated by Norman Rosenthal and collector Charles Saatchi. Featuring 110 works by 42 different artists, and touring to New York and Berlin, the show helped carve the artists a place in the international art scene. Included in the show were Tracey Emin’s tent, Everyone I have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, Marc Quinn’s Self, 1991, a self-portrait sculpture made from his own blood, Damien Hirst’s infamous shark suspended in formaldehyde and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s sexualised child mannequins. Most provocative was Marcus Harvey’s Myra, 1995, a depiction of the child killer Myra Hindley composed from child hand prints, which led to a public and media furore. In New York the work was shown at the Brooklyn Museum, who warned the public the show, ‘may cause shock, vomiting confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety.’
Since the 1990s, the gallery scene in London remains one of the most influential in the world, and the Turner Prize has received a greater level of media and public attention after the notorious antics of the YBA generation.