IT SEEMS to have crept up on us without anyone noticing. London has become the contemporary art capital of Europe. Maybe the world? Well, perhaps that's an over-statement. 'London is the most dynamic centre after New York,' Jeffrey Deitch, the leading New York art consultant, assures me, mentioning Los Angeles and Tokyo as runners-up. British sculptor Richard Wentworth goes even further: 'London is probably the most exciting city,' he says. 'New York is just an old money box.'
Collectors and museum curators are pouring into London from America and Europe, anxious to see the latest thing, keep up with new trends and buy. 'Anything new is selling the minute it is shown,' says Victoria Miro, a Cork street dealer specialising in conceptual art. 'It's older art that's difficult to sell these days.' She sees this phenomenon as a reversal of the familiar order: 'The problem for a dealer is not finding buyers any more, it's finding the right material to sell.'
Miro's recent show of Peter Doig paintings - all depicting a Corbusier apartment block stealthily viewed through a woodland - was a near sell-out, with half the pictures going to British collectors and half abroad. Maureen Paley had the same experience three weeks ago; all but one of the monochrome paintings of restaurant interiors by Paul Winstanley on show at her East End gallery, Interim Art, were sold during a Sunday afternoon preview.
So what about the bad press the avant-garde has been getting? The media leapt to the support of Brian Sewell, the Evening Standard's connoisseur art critic, when a group of raging avant-gardists (including dealers Karsten Schubert and Maureen Paley) attacked him in the paper's letter columns last year. Rachel Whiteread's 'House', a plaster cast of the interior of a London home, was vilified in the media before it was bulldozed. The Turner Prize, which Whiteread won last autumn, has given rise to volumes of humorous and non-humorous apoplexy in the press.
The sheer volume of the criticism is perhaps a giveaway; new art has become 'news'. And persecution is proving a positive stimulus to young artists, as has often happened in the past. Just think of
the Impressionists. Laure Genillard, a Swiss dealer in Foley Street, London W1, suggests that the vibrancy of Britain's new art derives, in part, from having an entrenched establishment to fight. Sloppy liberal politicians, handing out free studio space and subsidies, such as you find in Holland, results in dismal art, she says.
While the new art has found its way into mainstream public spaces and commercial dealers' galleries, it has an 'alternative', almost 'underground', character. Part of the fun is that it's difficult to find, with many exhibitions in temporarily converted warehouses and other such spaces in Brixton, Stockwell or the East End. What's buzzing gets carried by word of mouth, giving participants the sense of being insiders. Private views - the right private views - are packed out with young artists and their friends. And the art itself can be fun too: Anya Gallaccio painted all the walls of Karsten Schubert's gallery with chocolate in January; Richard Wilson is currently digging down through the floor of Matt's Gallery at Mile End so that he can connect the water table by drainpipe to a billiard table in the exhibition space.
So what is the nature of this new art scene? When did it start? And how do you find it? It is primarily about an explosion of talented young artists - 'not just a dozen, but several dozen', according to Anthony Reynolds, a dealer in Dering Street. There has been a strong conceptualist showing - notably Damien Hirst, with his pickled cows and sharks, and Rachel Whiteread, with her plaster casts of interior space - but the phenomenon is eclectic, embracing video art, installation and photography, as well as the old-fashioned business of painting and sculpture. Indeed, painting is particularly 'hot' at the moment, witness the Hayward show that opened last week under the title 'Unbound: Possibilities in Painting'.
Jeffrey Deitch believes that you can trace the causes back to our education system. 'London has particularly good art schools,' he says, 'and a concentration of art schools.' The first salvo of the revolution came from Goldsmith's in 1988; the college was run by Jon Thompson, then director, in a consciously eclectic mode with Mary Kelly, Glenn Baxter and Michael Craig-Martin - extremely diverse artists - all simultaneously on staff. The Royal College and the Slade have turned out major artists since then - as has Glasgow.
It was in 1988 that Damien Hirst, while still a student at Goldsmith's, organised an exhibition called 'Freeze' in an empty warehouse at Canary Wharf; a high proportion of the artists he invited to show have since sprung to fame: Ian Davenport, Fiona Rae, Anya Gallaccio, Gary Hume, Simon Patterson. In 1990, he was co-curator of a second exhibition, called 'Modern Medicine', at Tower Bridge; exhibitions curated by artists in empty warehouse spaces have subsequently become a key part of the scene.
Young gallery directors also became excited about what was happening and began to comb college degree shows for new talent. The old stalwarts of the contemporary art market, d'Offay, Lisson and Waddington, have been challenged by a new generation of dealers which is international in flavour. Maureen Paley, an American, was one of the first to arrive in 1984, turning her home in a working-class terrace in Bethnal Green into a gallery, Interim Art. 'There was a do-it-yourself punk aesthetic about,' she says, 'a sense of alternatives to established spaces.' Karsten Schubert, from Germany - Rachel Whiteread's dealer - opened in Charlotte Street in 1987 and Laure Genillard, from Switzerland, in nearby Foley Street in 1988. All three dealers have attracted foreign collectors to Britain.
Young British dealers have also set up shop; the Victoria Miro and Anthony Reynolds Galleries opened in 1985, Anderson O'Day in 1986, Todd in 1987, Frith Street in 1989, and the Cabinet Gallery in 1992. All are now taking the message abroad by showing British work at Continental art fairs; there were 14 British galleries showing at Cologne last November.
The most significant new arrival on the gallery scene, however, is Jay Jopling, who opened a tiny space called White Cube in Duke Street, St James's, last year. He acts as agent for half a dozen of the brightest new artistic talents, including Damien Hirst. There is no room in Duke Street for major shows, so Jopling seeks out empty houses or industrial spaces that are suited to his artists' work. He mounted a mould-breaking exhibition for Gavin Turk in an empty house in Denmark Hill, south London, last December.
Turk was refused an MA from the Royal College in 1991 because he limited his degree- show installation to one blue, Borough of Kensington plaque that announced 'Gavin Turk, Sculptor, worked here 1989-1991'. His tongue- in-cheek art is quarried from the history of modernism; the show-stopper at Jopling's exhibition was a waxwork image of Turk himself dressed up as Sid Vicious and standing in the pose Warhol used in his famous silkscreen of Elvis. It neatly epitomises the debt that the new young artists owe to punk and a streetwise youth culture that has already put Britain's music, dance and fashion on the map.
Along with the new artists has come a new art magazine called Frieze, run by three 25- year-old editors with an Apple Mac. A pilot issue in June 1991, with the first ever article on Damien Hirst as its cover story, sold out its 1,500 print run. 'We felt it was needed here,' Matthew Slotover, the founding editor, explains. 'We were excited about the young work being done here. Since we come from the same generation, we felt we understood.' Frieze now has a circulation of 20,000, two-thirds of which is overseas. 'It is the best new art magazine in any language,' comments Jeffrey Deitch.
The difference between the London scene and that of Paris, Milan, Madrid or Cologne - which would, until recently, have outshone London as art capitals - is that we have so few home-grown collectors. Dealers acknowledge that between 50 and 80 per cent of their sales are to foreigners. But, even here, the situation is changing as a new batch of entrepreneurs in their twenties or thirties grows rich enough to start collecting.
They have before their eyes the golden example of Charles Saatchi, the advertising tycoon who has built a private gallery for his collection in Boundary Road. He began to disperse his massive holdings of 1970s and 1980s art three years ago to concentrate instead on young British artists. It is no coincidence that his fascination with British art has coincided with the burgeoning of the local art scene. He has acted as a catalyst - showcasing the work of new artists and opening the eyes of collectors, both in Britain and abroad. -
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies