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.


1992 DOUBLETAKE Key Hayward show for international art.

1993 HOUSE Rachel Whiteread's most ambitious UK cast.


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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor