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Young British Artists

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Title: Young British Artists  
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Subject: Saatchi Gallery, Fiona Banner, Georgina Starr, Tacita Dean, Henry Bond
Collection: British Artist Groups and Collectives, British Contemporary Artists, Young British Artists
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Young British Artists

Mat Collishaw Bullet Hole which was on display in the Freeze exhibition.

The Young British Artists, or YBAs[1]—also referred to as Brit artists and Britart—is the name given to a loose group of visual artists who first began to exhibit together in London, in 1988. Many of the artists graduated from the BA Fine Art course at Goldsmiths, in the late 1980s.

The scene began around a series of artist-led exhibitions held in warehouses and factories, beginning in 1988 with the Damien Hirst-led Freeze and, in 1990, East Country Yard Show and Modern Medicine.

They are noted for "shock tactics", use of throwaway materials, wild-living, and an attitude "both oppositional and entrepreneurial".[2] They achieved considerable media coverage and dominated British art during the 1990s—international survey shows in the mid-1990s included Brilliant! and Sensation.

Many of the artists were initially supported and collected by Charles Saatchi. Leading artists of the group include Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Key works include Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine, and Emin's My Bed, a dishevelled double bed surrounded by detritus.

The first use of the term "young British artists" was by Michael Corris in ArtForum, May 1992.[3] The acronym term "YBA" (or "yBa") was not coined until 1996 (in Art Monthly magazine). It has become a historic term, as most of the YBAs were born in the mid-1960s.


  • Origin 1
    • Goldsmiths 1.1
    • Freeze 1.2
    • Other shows 1.3
  • Revitalization of British art scene 2
    • Charles Saatchi's involvement 2.1
  • Becoming the establishment 3
  • The YBAs since 1997 4
    • Elected Royal Academicians 4.1
    • Doctorates 4.2
  • Reaction 5
    • Positive 5.1
    • Negative 5.2
  • Artists exhibited in Freeze 6
  • Artists exhibited in Brilliant! 7
  • Other YBAs 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10



Goldsmiths College, Millard Building, in Camberwell, where many of the YBAs met on the BA Fine Art, in the late 1980s

The core of the later-to-be YBAs graduated from the Goldsmiths BA Fine Art degree course in the classes of 1987-90. Liam Gillick, Fiona Rae, Steve Park and Sarah Lucas, were graduates in the class of 1987. Ian Davenport, Michael Landy, Gary Hume, Anya Gallaccio, Lala Meredith-Vula, Henry Bond and Angela Bulloch, were graduates in the class of 1988; Damien Hirst, Angus Fairhurst, Mat Collishaw, Simon Patterson, and Abigail Lane, were graduates from the class of 1989; whilst Gillian Wearing, and Sam Taylor-Wood, were graduates from the class of 1990. During the years 1987-1990, the teaching staff on the Goldsmiths BA Fine Art included Jon Thompson, Richard Wentworth, Michael Craig-Martin, Ian Jeffrey, Helen Chadwick, Mark Wallinger, Judith Cowan and Glen Baxter.


A group of sixteen Goldsmiths students took part in a group exhibition of art, called Freeze, of which Damien Hirst became the main organiser; he was still in the second year of a BA in Fine Art.

Commercial galleries had shown a lack of interest in the project, and it was held in a cheap non-art space, a London Docklands admin block (usually referred to as a warehouse). The event resonated with the 'Acid House' warehouse rave scene prevalent at the time, but did not achieve any major press exposure. One of its effects was to set an example of artist-as-curator—in the mid-1990s artist-run exhibition spaces and galleries became a feature of the London arts scene.

Other shows

View of East Country Yard Show with Anya Gallaccio's installation in foreground, 1990.

In liaison with Hirst, East Country Yard Show in a disused warehouse in London Docklands which was installed over four floors and 16,000m2 of exhibition space. Writing in The Independent, art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon said:

"Goldsmiths graduates are unembarrassed about promoting themselves and their work: some of the most striking exhibitions in London over the past few months—"The East Country Yard Show", or "Gambler", both staged in docklands—have been independently organized and funded by Goldsmiths graduates as showcases for their work. This has given them a reputation for pushiness, yet it should also be said that in terms of ambition, attention to display and sheer bravado there has been little to match such shows in the country's established contemporary art institutions. They were far superior, for instance, to any of the contemporary art shows that have been staged by the Liverpool Tate in its own multi-million-pound dockland site."[4]

Established alternative spaces such as City Racing at the Oval in London and Milch gave many artists their first exposure. There was much embryonic activity in the Hoxton/Shoreditch area of East London focused on Joshua Compston's gallery. In 1991, the Serpentine Gallery presented a survey of this group of artists with the exhibition Broken English. In 1992, Charles Saatchi staged a series of exhibitions of Young British Art, the first show included works by Sarah Lucas, Rachel Whiteread and Damien Hirst.

A second wave of Young British Artists appeared in 1992-1993 through exhibitions such as 'New Contemporaries', 'New British Summertime' and 'Minky Manky' (curated by Carl Freedman). This included Jane and Louise Wilson. One exhibition which included several of the YBA artists was the 1995 quin-annual British Art Show.

Revitalization of British art scene

Sarah Lucas's photo The Artist Eating a Banana 1990.

The Young British Artists revitalised (and in some cases spawned) a whole new generation of contemporary commercial galleries such as Karsten Schubert, Sadie Coles, Victoria Miro, Maureen Paley's Interim Art, and Jay Jopling's White Cube. The spread of interest improved the market for contemporary British art magazines through increased advertising and circulation. Frieze launched in 1991 embraced the YBAs from the start while established publications such as Art Monthly, Art Review, Modern Painters and Contemporary Art were all re-launched with more focus on emerging British artists.

Charles Saatchi's involvement

One of the visitors to Freeze was Charles Saatchi, a major contemporary art collector and co-founder of Saatchi and Saatchi, the London advertising agency. Saatchi then visited Gambler in a green Rolls Royce and, according to Freedman, stood open-mouthed with astonishment in front of (and then bought) Hirst's first major "animal" installation, A Thousand Years, consisting of a large glass case containing maggots and flies feeding off a rotting cow's head. (The installation was later a notable feature of the Sensation exhibition.)

Saatchi became not only Hirst's main collector, but also the main sponsor for other YBAs–a fact openly acknowledged by Gavin Turk. The contemporary art market in London had dramatically collapsed in mid-1990 due to a major economic recession, and many commercial contemporary galleries had gone out of business. Saatchi had until this time collected mostly American and German contemporary art, some by young artists, but most by already established ones.

His collection was publicly exhibited in a series of shows in a large converted factory building in St John's Wood, north London. Previous Saatchi Gallery shows had included such major figures as Warhol, Guston, Alex Katz, Serra, Kiefer, Polke, Richter and many more. In the early-1990s, Saatchi altered his focus to emerging British art.

Saatchi put on a series of shows called "Young British Artists" starting in 1992, when a noted exhibit was Damien Hirst's "shark" (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living), which became the iconic work of British art in the 1990s,[5] and the symbol of Britart worldwide.[6] In addition to (and as a direct result of) Saatchi's patronage, the Young British Artists benefited from intense media coverage. This was augmented by controversy surrounding the annual Turner Prize, (one of Britain's few major awards for contemporary artists), which had several of the artists as nominees or winners. Channel 4 had become a sponsor of the competition, leading to television profiles of the artists in prime-time slots.

Becoming the establishment

Cover of Brilliant! exhibition catalogue—a YBA showcase in the USA in 1995. The poster uses a picture showing the aftermath of the Provisional IRA's 1993 Bishopsgate bombing.

The consolidation of the artists' status began in 1995 with a large-scale group exhibition Brilliant! held at the Walker Art Center a respected art museum in Minneapolis, USA. The term "yBa" was coined by Simon Ford in a feature "Myth Making" in March 1996 in Art Monthly magazine.[7]

Art dealer Jay Jopling began to represent YBAs Jake & Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Marcus Harvey, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Marc Quinn and Sam Taylor-Wood, whom he married in 1998.

In 1997, the Royal Academy, staged an exhibition of the private art collection of Charles Saatchi titled Sensation, which included many works by YBA artists.

The exhibition was actually a showing of Charles Saatchi's private collection of their work, and he owned the major pieces. The liaison was effected by the Academy's Norman Rosenthal, even though there was strong opposition from some of the Academicians, three of whom resigned. Controversy engendered in the media about the show, particularly over Marcus Harvey's work Myra, served to reinforce the YBAs' importance. When the show toured to New York there was further controversy caused by the inclusion of Chris Ofili's work.

The YBAs since 1997

My Bed by Tracey Emin

In 1997, Gillian Wearing won the annual Turner Prize. In 1998, Chris Ofili won the annual Turner Prize.

In 1999, Tracey Emin was nominated for the Turner Prize. Her main exhibit, My Bed, consisting literally of her dishevelled, stained bed, surrounded by detritus including condoms, slippers and soiled underwear, created an immediate and lasting media impact and further heightened her prominence. The emergence at the same time of an anti-YBA group, The Stuckists, co-founded by her ex boyfriend, Billy Childish, gave another angle to media coverage.

In 2003, YBAs Jake and Dinos Chapman and Anya Gallaccio were nominated for the annual Turner Prize.

On 24 May 2004, a fire in a storage warehouse destroyed some works from the Saatchi collection, including the Chapman Brothers' Hell and Tracey Emin's "tent", Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995.

In 2008, YBA Angus Fairhurst committed suicide.

In the 2011 Birthday Honours List, Sam Taylor-Wood and Gillian Wearing were appointed Order of the British Empire by the UK constitutional monarch Elizabeth II.

Elected Royal Academicians

Several of the YBAs have been elected as lifetime members of the

  • Gary Hume elected 24 May 2001
  • Fiona Rae elected 28 May 2002
  • Tracey Emin elected 27 March 2007
  • Jenny Saville elected July, 2007
  • Gillian Wearing elected 11 December 2007
  • Michael Landy elected 29 May 2008
  • Tacita Dean elected 9 December 2008[8]


In 2004, Gillian Wearing received an Honorary Doctorate from the University for the Creative Arts; in 2007, Henry Bond received a Doctorate from the University of Gloucestershire; in 2007, Tracey Emin received Honorary Doctorates from the Royal College of Art and London Metropolitan University; in 2010, Fiona Banner received an Honorary Doctorate from Kingston University.



Richard Cork (at one time art critic of The Times) has been a staunch advocate of the artists, as has art writer Louisa Buck, and former Time Out art editor, Sarah Kent. Sir Nicholas Serota has validated the artists by the nomination of several of them for the Turner Prize and their inclusion in the Tate collection.

Maureen Paley said, "The thing that came out of the YBA generation was boldness, a belief that you can do anything."[9]

Speaking in 2009, Iwona Blazwick the director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery said, "The YBA moment is definitely now dead, but anyone who thinks they were a cut-off point is wrong. They began something which has continued to grow ever since. It's not over."[10]


In 1998, John Windsor in The Independent said that the work of the YBAs seemed tame compared with that of the "shock art" of the 1970s, including "kinky outrages" at the Nicholas Treadwell Gallery, amongst which were a "hanging, anatomically detailed leather straitjacket, complete with genitals", titled Pink Crucifixion, by Mandy Havers.[11]

In 1999 the Stuckists art group was founded with an overt anti-YBA agenda. In 2002 Britart was heavily criticised by the leading conductor Sir Simon Rattle, who was, in return, accused of having a poor understanding of conceptual and visual art.

Playwright Tom Stoppard made a public denunciation, and Brian Sewell (art critic of the Evening Standard) has consistently been hostile, as has David Lee, the editor of Jackdaw. Rolf Harris, the television presenter and artist, singled out Tracey Emin's My Bed as the kind of installation that put people off art. "I don't see how getting out of bed and leaving the bed unmade and putting it on show and saying that's worth, I don't know £31,000 ... I don't believe it, I think it's a con."

For James Heartfield, "The 1990s art boom encouraged sloppiness. The Young British Artists preferred the inspired gesture to patient work. They added public outrage to their palettes, only to find that it faded very quickly."[12]

Members of the group are parodied in a regular cartoon strip by Birch, titled "Young British Artists", in the British satirical magazine Private Eye.

Artists exhibited in Freeze

Artists exhibited in Brilliant!

Other YBAs


  1. ^ Sometimes with lower case, as "young British artist(s)" or "yBa".
  2. ^ Bush, Kate. "Young British art: the YBA sensation", Artforum, June 2004, p. 91. Retrieved from, 14 March 2010.
  3. ^ Corris, Michael. "British? Young? Invisible? w/Attitude?.", ArtForum, May 1992, p. 109. Retrieved from [2], 20 April 2011.
  4. ^ Andrew Graham-Dixon, "The Midas Touch?: Graduates of Goldsmiths School of Art dominate the current British art scene," The Independent, 31 July 1990, p. 13.
  5. ^ Brooks, Richard. "Hirst's shark is sold to America", The Sunday Times, 16 January 2005. Retrieved 14 October 2008.
  6. ^ Davies, Serena. "Why painting is back in the frame", The Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2005. Retrieved 15 October 2008.
  7. ^ "About Art Monthly", Art Monthly, retrieved 14 March 2010.
  8. ^ RA list of Royal Academicians, Retrieved 29 August 2011.
  9. ^ Duguid, Hannah. "Women at work", The Independent, 28 August 2009. Retrieved 15 August 2010.
  10. ^ Hannah Duguid, "Women at work: As the older generation of YBAs grows up, a new set of female creators is taking over" The Independent, 28 August 2009.
  11. ^ Windsor, John. "Art 98: Collecting—Let the love affair begin", The Independent, 17 January 1998. Retrieved 14 August 2010.
  12. ^ James Heartfield: the creativity Gap. 2005. p. 23
  13. ^ a b Grant, Simon. "Cultural propganda?", Apollo, 27 March 2009. Retrieved 13 June 2010. Archived 22 June 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ "Fiona Banner born 1966", Tate. Retrieved 13 June 2010. Archived at WebCite.

External links

  • Letter from London: Sensation, contemporaneous review of the exhibition
  • A critique on the "Britpack" by Liz Ellis
  • Flashing Emin,Critical Analysis of "Spectacular" Contemporary Arts by Kubilay Akman
  • The British Avant-Garde: A Philosophical Analysis, Deborah Fitzgerald, Furman University
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