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Modern & Post-War British Art

Who Were the YBAs?

Ahead of Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated sale in London on 11 April, which features works by YBAs (Young British Artists) Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Sam Taylor-Johnson and many others, we look more closely at who the YBAs were, and the importance of their work to the evolution of contemporary art.

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MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN, FAN. ESTIMATE: £6,000–8,000.

The YBAs, or Young British Artists, were a group of innovative artists who began exhibiting at the end of the 1980s, and rose to international prominence in the 1990s. They represented a new and exciting phase in British art, and were considered innovative, entrepreneurial, provocative and irreverent. They appeared during a period when Britain was perceived as lacking a truly vibrant postmodern art culture comparable to the Pictures Generation in New York and the Neue Wildern in Berlin. As a result, they received considerable media and critical attention. Postmodernism’s characteristic traits: appropriation, rejection of fine art materials, preoccupation with spectacle, and the rejection of distinctions between high and low culture, ran through the heart of much of the YBAs' work, and ensured that it quickly became part of the global conversation.

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SAM TAYLOR-JOHNSON, BRAM STOKER'S CHAIR VII. ESTIMATE: £12,000–18,000.

They were known for their extreme openness to creating art using many different, often non-art materials — from crushing found objects with a steam roller to preserving dead animals, to the development of the artistic installation — and for their willingness to shock. Works by the YBAs are among some of the best known and controversial in modern art history, with Tracey’s Emin’s My Bed — her own bed, littered in used condoms, tissues and underwear, exhibited as an artwork — and Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, more commonly known as simply ‘The Shark’, in which a dead shark is suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, among the best known.

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DAMIEN HIRST, THE PHYSICAL IMPOSSIBILITY OF DEATH IN THE MIND OF SOMEONE LIVING., 1991 © DAMIEN HIRST AND SCIENCE LTD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS/ARTIMAGE 2018. PHOTO: PRUDENCE CUMING ASSOCIATES LTD.

The majority of the YBAs graduated from Goldsmith’s College with a BA in Fine Arts between 1987 and 1990. The 1988 Freeze exhibition organised by Damien Hirst played a major role in launching many of the young artists’ careers. However, it was the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997 — an exhibition comprised from works in famous art collector and advertising mogul Charles Saatchi’s art collection — which really established the YBAs as both a recognised artistic movement and a brand in its own right. While many of the most notorious works by the YBAs were already known, this was the first time such a wide audience was able to see them, while their association with Charles Saatchi lent them a new sense of importance. The controversial nature of the works — particularly Marcus Harvey’s Myra, an image of child-killer Myra Hindley — created a media frenzy, and put the YBAs at the epicentre of the ensuing storm of criticism and debate.

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GARY HUME, PRINCESS. ESTIMATE: £12,000–18,000.

Noble & Webster’s piece, Cheap & Nasty, is one example of the use of found objects in the creation of a spectacle. Two stuck-together bundles of trash, from Barbie legs to aerosol containers, pocket fans and a bit of a pink flamingo, rotate on skewers, their projected shadows revolving through apparent formlessness, until they resolve into two silhouetted heads, which briefly appear to kiss, before dissolving once again. This piece confronts the ubiquity of meaningless, mass-produced trash and relates it to the poignancy of both a clichéd love image and the ephemerality of its momentary appearance.

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TIM NOBLE AND SUE WEBSTER, CHEAP & NASTY. ESTIMATE: £25,000–35,000.

Not all of the works by the YBAs were as performative however, and in many cases works were drawn or painted. Hirst’s Global a Go-Go-for Joe, is an etching based on his 1995 series of spin paintings, created after a collaboration with Angus Fairhurst in 1993 at the YBAs' event A Fete Worse Than Death. At the fete, Hirst and Fairhurst created paintings by drawing on a piece of paper attached to a board, which they span with an electric drill, and then sold for £1 each. Hirst went on to develop and use the technique in his work. Global a Go-Go-for Joe is a piece created for Joe Strummer, the guitarist from punk band The Clash, who died in 2002.

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DAMIEN HIRST, GLOBAL-A-GO-GO-FOR JOE. ESTIMATE: £8,000–12,000.

The sale includes one work by the late Jon Thompson, an artist and academic at Goldsmiths who taught many of the students who would go on to become the YBAs. Many attribute the development of the movement in part to Thompson’s highly progressive attitude to the teaching of art, particularly his decision to remove artistic specialisms, and allow students to move freely between creating in different media.

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JON THOMPSON, AL HALILL. ESTIMATE: £1,500–2,000.

CLICK HERE to view the full sale catalogue.

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