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

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen