Critics' Awards 1999 - Visual Arts: No one was big enough

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The Independent Culture
When archaeologists of the new millennium come to excavate the art of 1999, they will doubtless dub it the Year of Tracey's Bed. This will say more about the fin de siecle than they know. In 1998, the Turner Prize behaved as it always had. The Prize is sponsored by a media company and was won, as you would expect, by the work that had attracted the most odium in the press: namely several pieces of elephant dung, coincidentally attached to some rather well-painted canvases. In '99, though, something went wrong. Tracey's Bed - skidmarks! vodka bottles! (gasp) menstrual blood! - was the stuff of televisual dreams: yet it lost to the considered work of Steve McQueen. Was this the end of celebrity art?

No, but it's a nice idea.

There were other promises of change in 1999 as well, most of them probably as hollow as the Turner Prize's. Prime among these was the advent of another New Wave in British art. Hurrah. This time it was the turn of the New Neurotic Realists, taken up by the Saatchi Gallery. And what was new about them? Well, some said that there was a novel emphasis on craft, on hand- madeness, that rejected the factory-made aesthetic of Hirst and the YBAs. Others, more cynical, suggested that the NNR's new vision lay in their extraordinary eye for the main chance. Certainly, squeezing artists as disparate as Michael Rae-decker (who went on to win the John Moores painting prize) and Steven Gontarski into a single school seemed slightly far-fetched. The NNR's leader, Martin Maloney, merely remarked that "everything is marketed with a label these days," adding sagely, "There's no point being the fifth Gary Hume."

Strangely, the first Gary Hume would seem to have reached the same conclusion. One of the more interesting developments in 1999 was the final transformation of Hume from a painter of socially realistic things like hospital doors to a painter of flowers and pretty girls and angels, all realised in the glossiest of high gloss. First revealed to a mesmerised public at Edinburgh's Dean Gallery in August, Hume's new work has called forth a torrent of critical bellwethering. Is this the art of the next millennium? Do Hume's lipstick angels and orchids mark a general return to beauty in art - maybe even to the Brian Sewellish values of well-made painting?

No, but it's another nice idea.

It is not entirely ironic to note that some of the newest work produced in 1999 came from some of the oldest artists. Prime among these was Prunella Clough, who celebrated her 80th birthday in August by having what she insisted was not a retrospective at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, and then went on to win the country's prime painting prize, the Jerwood, two months later. This was not the long service award it seemed. Clough's scarred, excavated abstracts are both a massive departure in the painter's oeuvre and completely fresh.

And my own favourite show of 1999? It's a toss-up - not, oddly enough, between any of the various London blockbusters (although the Royal Academy's Kandinskyfest and the National Gallery's show of Rembrandt self-portraits were both extraordinary), but between two small, provincial shows of contemporary sculpture. Tania Kovats' work at Roche Court in Salisbury in November had the kind of poise and sureness that made you feel there must be something in the British water. My absolute favourite, though, was another oldish dog doing new tricks. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park's show of the New York artist Joel Shapiro was just plain uplifting. Shapiro's earlier work harks back to the beginnings of Modernism: hints of Constructivism, lines of de Stijl. Now nearly 60, the artist has taken all these elements and, with immense courage, thrown them up in the air. They have come down again as a series of lighter-than-air plywood stabiles that are all to do with the suggestion of flight, the freezing of stillness. The art of the new millennium?

Now that really is a nice idea.

Previous winners

1991 Ana Maria Pacheco

1992 Bridget Riley

1993 Prunella Clough

1994 John Gibbons

1995 Anthony Caro

1996 Jennifer Durrant

1997Ewan Uglow

1998 Chris Ofili