On the evening of 1 July 2014, a cheer rang out across the packed room as the Christie’s auctioneer brought down the gavel. Tracey Emin’s rumpled bed, strewn with blood-stained underwear, used condoms, cigarette butts and empty vodka bottles, had sold for £2.5 million, more than triple the lowest pre-sale estimates. The gavel’s thud sealed the market’s judgment on one of the most controversial icons of Young British Art, which with its in-your-face grimness and disregard for traditional artistic skill epitomized all that riled conservatives about the art of the 1990s. In itself the price tag wasn’t astounding given that Damien Hirst’s work regularly sells for more. But Tracey’s My Bed dramatically polarized debate in Britain about whether it even deserved to be called art.
When it was displayed for the 1999 Turner Prize shortlist, two Chinese pranksters had a pillow fight on the bed and a housewife tried to clean it with disinfectant. Journalists filled column inches galore arguing whether it was a shameless self-promoting gimmick or a searingly honest self-portrait. For Tracey, My Bed (1998) marked an epiphany in her life, a dawning of clarity after a week spent passing in and out of consciousness in an alcoholic haze following a devastating breakup with a boyfriend. After barely managing to crawl to the kitchen sink for a grubby glass of water and staggering back to her bedroom, she describes how ‘I just suddenly thought, “This is horrific.” And then it all turned around for me. It stopped being horrific and started to become beautiful. Because I hadn’t died, had I?’ The market’s validation of the work – with barely a murmur of disapproval from the press – and its subsequent loan to the Tate for ten years show just how far British artists have come since the late 1980s when the Goldsmiths generation burst onto the nation’s parochial art scene and changed the landscape irreversibly.
The London art world in the late 1980s prior to ‘Freeze’ was essentially a ‘very discreet gentlemen’s club’, according to the gallerist Sadie Coles. The commercial scene revolved mainly around one thoroughfare: Cork Street in Mayfair, site of a string of upmarket galleries largely dealing in modern art. ‘There was no market for sales. There was no press. There were no collectors. There was no audience. It was empty. I mean it was an empty vessel. It was a desert,’ recalls former Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones.
The art world functioned under a strictly prescribed code. Apart from rare stars such as Julian Opie, who had been signed up by the Lisson Gallery after graduating from Goldsmiths, art students faced years of penury, supporting themselves through odd jobs before they could hope for a show at a private gallery. ‘Everyone was waiting in line, when do I get a show, do I have to wait till Howard Hodgkin dies?’ remembers the critic Adrian Searle. Only once artists were established would a public institution take an interest in them, but without a gallery how to become established? It was catch-22. ‘The idea of being a professional artist who was paid was somehow vulgar and wasn’t really even seen as possible in England,’ says the Goldsmiths-trained artist Richard Patterson. ‘If you were going to be a successful artist, you just somehow had to miraculously be moneyed or something.’ The artist Jake Chapman concurs: ‘The concept of the young artist, the artist that was not some wizened old git scrubbing around in their kitchen sink, was not a thing that existed.’
That all changed in the summer of 1988 when a group of exceptionally talented, cocky and determined art students from Goldsmiths College, led by Damien Hirst, took matters into their own hands and staged the now legendary exhibition ‘Freeze’ in a derelict warehouse in Docklands. It marked the vanguard of a revolution that was to smash down the elitist barriers around art, transform the national psyche and put British contemporary art on the international map. ‘It was an amazing moment. It was the biggest birth in British art in a way,’ says Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy, who co-curated the contentious ‘Sensation’ exhibition there with the collector and adman Charles Saatchi in 1997.
That core group of sixteen ‘Freeze’ exhibitors, including now well-known names such as Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas and Fiona Rae, quickly expanded to embrace artists from other London colleges, such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk and Rachel Whiteread, as well as Scottish artists like Douglas Gordon, who were spearheading an alternative scene in Glasgow. Refusing to wait for establishment blessing, artists organized shows in their front rooms, squats, disused factories, vacant shops. ‘I don’t think anybody had any hopes for being involved in the grown-ups’ gallery system. That seemed to be sewn up,’ says Dinos Chapman. ‘Nor did they want to join the system. It was too much fun outside it.’ But if a curator did visit one of their studios, the artist would insist on taking them to see several others in the spirit of solidarity of the time.
Apart from Modernists such as Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and later Anthony Caro, only a handful of contemporary British artists had previously made it into the mainstream. The public was just about aware of Pop artists like Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton and David Hockney, who had made their name in the 1960s, and School of London standouts such as Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. The more art-informed would have been familiar with Central Saint Martins graduates Gilbert & George and Richard Long, as well as the 1980s generation of sculptors on the Lisson Gallery roster such as Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon and Anish Kapoor. Women artists barely registered on the radar, except for possibly Bridget Riley with her Optical Art and Paula Rego’s Magical Realist painting. The BritArt generation mostly looked beyond their British forebears for inspiration, to America and Europe. They found it in Minimalists like Donald Judd, in Andy Warhol’s brand creation and in the slick, market-driven art of Jeff Koons. Big bucks Neo-Expressionist painters such as Julian Schnabel in America and Georg Baselitz in Germany, German Conceptualists like the iconoclast Martin Kippenberger and Arte Povera artists such as Janis Kounellis also exerted an influence.
But this was not a generation inhibited by the weight of art history. Many considered art before 1945 as artefact. ‘The one thing we all have in common is we didn’t sit around talking about El Greco,’ says Goldsmiths artist Liam Gillick. ‘Later on in the ’90s I’d meet younger artists and they’d all be going on about “Did you see the Fra Angelico show?” and I’d say, “No, I didn’t. But I saw Sabrina the Teenage Witch this morning.” It’s…as if we started…without any history.’
The YBAs plundered recent art, advertising and media ruthlessly but they transformed what they found to their own ends. Using sliced-up animals in formaldehyde, mutant child mannequins with penis-noses and anus-mouths, heads sculpted from human blood and casts of whole houses, the artists grabbed the British public, punched them in the face and shook them out of their torpor. ‘They did something that nobody else had managed to do, which was to puncture public consciousness,’ says Peyton-Jones. ‘It really started with artists realizing “no one’s interested in contemporary art, we’ve got to make something that speaks to the wider public”. Making work that…was accessible and…talked…in a language that anyone could understand.
And the media immediately followed that,’ agrees Matthew Slotover, who co-founded the magazine frieze in 1991 and the eponymous art fair twelve years later. No medium was taboo: kebabs, unmade beds, elephant dung, waxworks, chocolate. Grand scale frequently aimed at maximum impact. Their art spanned Time Out ads, the reconstruction of a human skeleton, tits and bum tabloid spreads, press conferences, forensic pathology images, interactive drawing machines, ink pads and sharks. The way was open. The playing field was level for men and women, at least for a time. Young dealers came knocking at the door, followed – at a distance – by museums.
To read on, pick up your copy of Artrage!: The Story of the BritArt Revolution.