THE 1990s IN REVIEW: VISUAL ARTS - Who wants to be a YBA? They do

Damien Hirst has a lot to answer for; artists are bigger than ever. By Charles Darwent

If ever a decade started badly, then the 1990s was it. The 1980s having ended in an economic crash, the distinguishing feature of the early 1990s was exhibitions held in empty office blocks: strange, eldritch shows that came and went and smelled of death. This promise seemed to be fulfiled when the Greatest Living British Painter - Francis Bacon - died in Madrid in 1992.

But, as sharply as they had plummeted, things looked up for British art. Lucian Freud's one-man show at the Whitechapel Gallery the following year saw Bacon's mantle passed to an equally impressive pair of shoulders; Freud's self-portrait, the star of the show, announced his succession to the title of Grand Old Man in terms that brooked no argument.

And things were happening lower down the scale, too. The 1980s crash had persuaded a number of collectors, notable among them Charles Saatchi, of the wisdom of buying the work of younger artists. The Young British Artist - or YBA - suddenly went from being sullen and edgy to being collectable. The televisual qualities of this transformation quickly caught the eye of Channel 4, whose offer of sponsorship allowed the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize to be resurrected in 1991. Channel 4 was responsible for introducing what would become a key element of British art of the 1990s: media celebrity.

By the end of the decade, this same celebrity would translate into astronomical prices for the YBAs' work: you are now as likely to pick up a knock-down Hirst as you are a bargain-basement Freud. Expense, in turn, has turned the no-longer-quite-so-Young British Artists into the art world Establishment, a process you might like to see symbolised in Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), aka The Shark In The Tank. So mainstream have the YBAs become that they were awarded (if that is the word) their own show at that mausoleum of modern art, the Royal Academy. The RA's "Sensation" exhibition (1997) shocked a few, but probably none so much as the hyper-trendy readers of Frieze magazine - another Nineties phenomenon - who rightly sniffed an end for the Britpack in the musty rooms of Burlington House.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In 1993, Rachel Whiteread produced one of the iconic pieces of Nineties art: the negative cast of an entire terraced house, commissioned by Artangel and known as House. When House was later demolished, the joy of Daily Telegraph readers was undisguised. Remark, then, on the irony of Whiteread's recent invitation to produce an inside-out resin plinth for what may be the most public public space in Britain, Trafalgar Square. Sic transit gloria Britpackii.

Britain's art institutions were meanwhile busy doing their bit for McQueen and country. Among the most important exhibitions to bring Britart to the public eye were the Institute of Contemporary Art's 1994 "Institute of Cultural Anxiety" show, an event that took critical deconstruction (not to say curatorial ingratitude) to new levels by deconstructing the ICA itself. The show also set out to give some kind of context to what was going on in British art by referring it to parallel developments in Europe and the US: a piece of transnational broad-mindedness it inherited from the Hayward's 1992 "Doubletake: Collective Memory in Current Art", which brought artists like Juan Munoz and Jeff Wall to Britain for the first time.

Perhaps even more importantly, contemporary art bodies also opened their minds to another small and far-away country of which they had previously known little: namely, regional Britain. The Tate had already set up its first out-station in Liverpool in 1988; another was added in St Ives, Cornwall, in 1993, while Glasgow acquired its own Museum of Modern Art and Birmingham's Ikon Gallery was given a major make-over. (That all of these were eclipsed by the Tate's pounds 135 million Bankside project, Tate Modern, opening in the spring of 2000, suggests that London-centricity in modern art may not be quite dead, though.) The 1995 "British Art Show" also aimed to bring YBAs to the masses for the first time by taking a touring exhibition of their work to Birmingham, Edinburgh and Southampton. And the decade was a good one for more traditional curatorship. The National Gallery's 1999 show of Rembrandt self-portraits and the Tate's of Jackson Pollock both retold old stories in a radical new light.

All in all, not a bad decade all round.

THE DECADE'S TOP ART

1992 DOUBLETAKE Key Hayward show for international art.

1993 HOUSE Rachel Whiteread's most ambitious UK cast.

1993 LUCIAN FREUD EXHIBITION

Freud becomes the greatest living British artist after his Whitechapel show.

1993 TATE ST IVES OPENS Cornwall gets a taste of the Tate's superb collection.

1997 SENSATION The YBAs come of age with their RA show. CD

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