Contemporary Art

Freeze Frame: the YBAs Look Back to the Show that Made Them

By Ben Luke

Freeze, one of the most influential shows in British art history, is now 30 years old. As the art historian Bruce Altshuler wrote in his magisterial history of exhibitions, Biennials and Beyond: Exhibitions that Made Art History, 1962-2002, the show “is legendary as the originating moment of the Young British Artists (YBAs), seen as having played a founding role similar to that of many artist-organised exhibitions in the history of early Modern art”.

The artist-organiser in this instance was 23-year-old Damien Hirst. But it was a collective enterprise: Hirst was unquestionably the leader, but 15 fellow Goldsmiths College students and recent graduates – among them Mat Collishaw, Sarah Lucas, Ian Davenport, Gary Hume and Michael Landy – were his dedicated collaborators.

Landy says that he seldom saw Hirst, who was in the year below him at Goldsmiths, “but he would come and go and paint some pots and pans and then disappear”. Hirst approached him to take part in a show after he had found a venue and was seeking funding, for both the exhibition and a dedicated catalogue. “It all seemed very ambitious,” Landy says. “As we were all just leaving, I wasn’t quite sure if he could actually pull it off. That was the unknown factor. But obviously, in hindsight, he did much more than that.”

The exhibition was shown in three parts, the first beginning on 6 August 1988 at the Port of London Authority’s former gym in Docklands, an area of east London then experiencing huge redevelopment. Its presentation was confident and immaculate, reminiscent in particular of the spare, minimal displays at Charles Saatchi’s first gallery on Boundary Road in St John’s Wood, north-west London. But before the artists got their hands on it, the building “was an absolute wreck”, Davenport remembers. “There’s a lovely photograph of a number of us at the opening and we look like we’re at a wedding, with a table and wine set out. But if you had flipped that camera around 180 degrees, you would have seen this industrial wasteland, with an anthrax factory, I think it was, around 100m away.”


Just before the Freeze private view. From left: Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Angela Bulloch, Fiona Rae, Stephen Park, Anya Gallaccio, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume, August 1988.

Photo: Abigail Lane. © Abigail Lane. All rights reserved; DACS/Artimage, 2018.

The show’s level of professionalism is often credited to one of the Goldsmiths tutors, the artist Michael Craig-Martin. He had brought art dealers to the degree show just before Freeze, resulting in gallery representation for Davenport (with Waddington Galleries) and Landy and Hume (with Karsten Schubert), but Craig-Martin says his influence is exaggerated. Hirst only invited him to Freeze after it was already up, he says. “I went in a few days before it was about to open and I was astonished by what Damien had done.”

The narrative that the show was “very contrived and very calculating” is false, Davenport says. “I think it happened much more naturally than that. Of course, people were ambitious and they wanted to do the best thing they could. But we weren’t taught how to do this at college. It happened much more organically.” He remembers that “there were some really fantastic pieces in that show: Mat Collishaw’s Bullet Hole photograph [1988] is still, to this day, a fantastic piece of work, really incredibly powerful, and Michael Landy had these wonderful tarpaulins of draped blue that were pinned up on one of the walls.” Hume showed early versions of his door paintings, which remain some of his best-regarded work.

Matt Collishaw, Bullet Hole 1988

Mat Collishaw, Bullet Hole (1988). © Mat Collishaw. All rights reserved; DACS/Artimage, 2018

Hirst’s own contribution was mixed. In the final part of the exhibition, he made his earliest spot paintings, directly on the wall – but in the first, he showed a cluster of coloured boxes. A photograph from the time captures Davenport helping Hirst to install the boxes, “but then I came in the next day and he had decided to take it all down and move it all around again”, he says, with a laugh. Landy recalls that “they were up in the rafters, and then when you came in to invigilate the exhibition, you’d find a couple more on the floor, because he hadn’t stuck them together properly”.

Both Davenport and Landy say that “one man and his dog” came to see the exhibition while they were invigilating it. But very quickly, a good number of the Freeze artists were showing widely, at home and abroad. Many have never looked back. “What’s been fantastic is that a lot of the artists in that show have maintained a really high level of showing their work all over the world and have become internationally well-known,” Davenport says. “That’s quite extraordinary, when you think about it.” Perhaps most extraordinarily, the maker of those errant painted boxes, who many considered a curator in the making, has, in Davenport’s words, “got to be one of the world’s most famous artists”.

Ian Davenport: Colourscapes, Waddington Custot, London, 20 September–8 November

Michael Landy, Thomas Dane Gallery, London, 2 October–17 November

For more work by the YBAs, see Sotheby's upcoming sale, Yellow Ball: The Frank and Lorna Dunphy Collection

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