The term "Young British Artist" might seem like a fairly generic descriptor to the average person in the street. But if you’re an art fan, you’ll probably be aware that during the 80s and 90s, those three words referred to something very specific. Like the Brat Pack of the 80s Hollywood film scene, the Young British Artists were a group of conceptual sculptors, installation artists and painters who shared the same visions and ideals when it came to their work. In essence, the YBA movement was about rejecting the traditional "painting in a picture frame" style in favour of something more…challenging.
Rebellious, controversial, and savvy when it came to the business side of things, these young artists played a huge role in the development of British art towards the end of the 20th century. This week, the easyFrame team is taking a look back at some of their most famous works – and finding out what they’re up to now.
The YBA movement was born in Goldsmiths University in London, under the mentorship of Sir Michael
Craig-Martin, with many of the core members graduating between 1987 and 1990. It was in 1988 that the art world first became aware of the potential of this group, when they hosted an exhibition entitled "Freeze" at an empty building in the London docklands.
Organised by a 23-year-old Damien Hirst – perhaps the most famous of the YBAs – the exhibition caught the attention of some of the most important people on the British art scene. Most significant was the appearance of businessman and art patron Charles Saatchi, who ended up buying one of the works on display, and in the process kicked off a long and fruitful relationship with the YBAs.
The YBAs quickly built a reputation for organising, funding and promoting their exhibitions themselves (admittedly with the financial help of people like Charles Saatchi), typically housing them in empty warehouses along the Thames. Soon enough, the media attention they had been attracting with their unconventional antics led established galleries to begin displaying their work.
The Famous Works
The YBA group was comprised of a number of artists, but perhaps the best known are Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, Sam Taylor-Wood, Sarah Lucas and Henry Bond.
Two of the most famous works that emerged from the 90s YBA scene are Hirst’s "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" from 1991 and Emin’s "My Bed" from 1999. Both shocking in their own unique ways, the fact that these two artworks book-ended the 90s shows how much the YBA movement dominated the art scene during this decade.
Hirst’s 1991 piece was funded by Saatchi, and consists of a dead tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde. Praised by the New York Times as "outstanding", the piece – which was first exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery – drew attention from critics across the world, with many attacking its simplicity; in response to claims that "anyone" could have made the work, Hirst famously said "But you didn’t, did you?"
After the deterioration of the first shark, it was replaced with a new specimen, leading people to wonder whether it could be counted as the same artwork. Hirst’s feeling was that the intention behind the work was more important than the finished result, a philosophy that has gone on to underpin much conceptual artwork of the 21st century.
Eight years later, Emin’s "My Bed" appeared on the London art scene. Shown at the Tate Gallery and shortlisted for the Turner Prize, the work was inspired by a depressive period in Emin’s life in which she had spent many days in bed, drinking alcohol, smoking, and slowly gathering a collection of objects and rubbish around her.
Just as controversial as Hirst’s tiger shark, Emin’s bed attracted similar critiques for its simplicity, and disgusted certain viewers with its sordid details. Originally bought by Saatchi and housed in the Saatchi Gallery, and later his own home, Emin’s bed ended up being sold in 2014 for over £2.5 million.
The YBAs Today
Today, artists like Hirst and Emin are still creating art and attracting controversy. Hirst’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale, "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable" has drawn criticism for its similarity to the artwork of Jason deCaires Taylor, who has been famous for many years for his underwater art installations. It’s not entirely clear how conscious Hirst was of the association, or to what extent it may be intentional on his part, but the artist has always been known for his mischievous sense of humour.
Emin is now a Royal Academician at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, and Sam Taylor-Wood (now known as Sam Taylor-Johnson, having changed her name after her marriage to actor Aaron Johnson) is most famous as a film & TV director. Henry Bond has made a name for himself as a writer and street photographer, and Sarah Lucas continues to display her art around the world – her exhibit at the 2015 Venice Biennale was characteristically playful.
Getting Inspired by the YBAs
Today, many artworks by the Young British Artists can be seen in galleries around the country. Marc Quinn’s "Self" – a sculpture of the artist’s head filled with his own blood – is displayed at London’s National Portrait Gallery, while works by Jake and Dinos Chapman can be viewed at the Tate Liverpool.
If you’ve found yourself inspired by the work of the Young British Artists and you’re keen to bring some of their famous pieces into your home, just remember that it doesn’t have to involve buying a tiger shark and several gallons of formaldehyde.
Order a good quality print or photograph, and you can hang it on your wall and be inspired every day. What’s more, you can get your print framed easily by using easyFrame’s simple online service. Visit our Picture Frames & Mounts page, enter the dimensions of your image, and we’ll send your picture frame within a matter of days.