Since the late 1980s, London has undergone a rapid cultural transformation, largely driven by an increasingly widespread interest in contemporary art. It might even be said that London is now defined by its engagement with contemporary art, lending the city a truly international perspective. At the very least, it’s what today makes the capital more attractive and distinct. But when did this interest start, and what motivated it? Why did London turn its back on the academy and conservatism and strive to carve a new path for itself?
In 1985, architect Max Gordon was commissioned to transform a 30,000-square-foot paint factory in St. John’s Wood into a contemporary art space the likes of which London had never seen. Anyone lucky enough to have visited the original Saatchi gallery will recall their astonishment at entering the vast white shed with overhead skylights and poured-concrete floor.
At the Saatchi Gallery, spellbinding shows of American minimalists and abstract painters such as Donald Judd and Brice Marden gave way to displays of more recent contemporary works by emerging artists. Bringing Neo Geo to London for the first time, the two-part exhibition New York Art Now (September 1987–January 1988) included Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley and Haim Steinbach. A reflection of America’s avaristic consumer culture, Jeff Koons’s Plexiglas-encased vacuum cleaners and stainless steel Rabbit (1986) struck a chord with a whole generation of young art students, inspiring them to mount similar shows of their own work.
Having planted the seed, the Saatchi Gallery gave rise to something equally new and distinctive: Young British Artists (YBAs). Not only did the Saatchi Gallery encourage a new generation of artists to start promoting their work outside the recognised gallery system, but it also raised the bar for contemporary art across London.
Not long after New York Art Now, Damien Hirst opened Freeze (1988), showcasing the work of a number of fellow students from Goldsmiths College in an abandoned warehouse in Surrey Docks. Henry Bond and Sarah Lucas soon organised East Country Yard Show (1990); three other landmark shows followed that same year: Modern Medicine, Gambler and Michael Landy’s Market, held in a former biscuit factory in Bermondsey.
Temporary shows popped up everywhere, from vacant shops and offices like The Imagination Building in Store Street to more archaic venues such as Shepherdess Walk or Wapping Pumping Station. There was a flurry of attempted gallery launches, including an early iteration of the Carl Freedman Gallery; Tamara Chodzko’s Woodstock Street Gallery (the site of Hirst’s first butterfly show); and the itinerant Milch Gallery, later Milch, with raucous openings attended by artists, queer punks and transvestites.
Private views were abuzz with young, incentivised artists spurred on by a ripple of attention in the burgeoning art press. Then came Frieze magazine. Launched in June 1991 by Amanda Sharp, Matthew Slotover and Tom Gidley, Frieze’s distinctively clean look set it apart from its competitors. Frieze would later tap Stuart Morgan as lead writer in the assessment of up-and-coming artists such as Glenn Brown, whose M.F.A. degree show at Goldsmiths featured paintings imitating works by Salvador Dalí and Frank Auerbach. That Brown was being discussed in the pages of Frieze by one of Britain’s pre-eminent art writers indicates the speed at which young artists were gaining attention.
Damien Hirst’s shark and Marc Quinn’s blood head soon entered the vernacular, along with Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture, House, which was unceremoniously demolished shortly after she won the Turner Prize in November 1993. Several female artists emerged at this time, including Sarah Lucas, who initially caught Charles Saatchi’s eye with Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992), shown in a temporary Soho space. Lucas’s photo series of a naked man holding a beer can like a ‘nob’ (as the artist would have it) was featured in the 1994 Portikus show Karaoke (Football World Cup) — Georg Herold and guests.
A heavy smoker with slicked-back hair, Herold was very much liked by the younger generation of British artists, especially Lucas. It was at his invitation that she produced her mattress sculpture Au Naturel, with its bucket and erect cucumber, as well as one of her more brutal table works, Bitch, featuring a vacuum-packed fish paraded as a vagina.
Gillian Wearing was another artist to emerge during the YBA period. Wearing had participated in a group show at Clove 1, in the Clove Building at Butler’s Wharf. But it wasn’t until her 1993 exhibition in South London’s City Racing gallery, featuring a series of photographs of men and women holding hand-scribbled signs, that Wearing truly broke through. Many will recall her photograph of a young businessman holding a sign reading, ‘I‘m desperate’.
By the mid-1990s London was starting to turn heads, with the first of several international round-up shows, Brilliant! New Art from London (1995), held at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Also in 1995, Hans-Ulrich Obrist curated the group show Take Me (I’m Yours) at the Serpentine Gallery, with bags of secondhand clothes offered by Christian Boltanski for a pound, Gilbert & George distributing free badges, and Jef Geys inviting visitors to buy fruit at the reception desk.
It was in this landscape brimming with young artists and curators that a number of new initiatives emerged, like the group show Something Else (1996), curated by Kirsty Bell in Exmouth Market. It’s hard to imagine that this bijou Clerkenwell street was once a boarded-up shopping parade, put to good use on this occasion when six abandoned retail units were converted into project spaces. Participating artists included Reinhard Mucha, Christina Mackie with Bruce Gilbert, Liza May Post and Hans-Peter Feldmann. Darren Almond presented A Real Time Piece (1996), a day-long video projection of his studio on the other side of London, which appeared to show not much happening at all until a wall clock hanging in the background turned the minute and triggered a loud electronic sound. The following year, Almond’s first solo show was held at White Cube.
Towards the mid- to late 1990s, the London art world and British art in general was widely perceived as a dominant force. A lot of energy was being expended around this time, and the art world soon witnessed a flourishing of young gallery spaces such as Independent Art Space in Chelsea and Robert Prime in Warren Street. In his book, Spitfire (1997), Johnnie Shand Kydd documented the social side of the London art world, with black-and-white photographs of Tracey Emin, Georgina Starr and Sam Taylor-Wood living it up in pubs and clubs around London. The book also revealed how London was starting to change, with new bars and restaurants such as the Atlantic Bar & Grill and St. John.
The Groucho Club was then a well-known haunt for many artists; it was here they started to rub shoulders with actors, TV producers and musicians. It can never be overstated how important music was to artists around this time, and how much the art world would blur with the music scene in the coming years.
Tate Modern opened to the public in May 2000, carrying a wave of newfound energy into the 21st century and becoming a cathedral for modern and contemporary art. Herzog & de Meuron’s sophisticated refurbishment of an oil-fired power station rang in the new and oversaw an extraordinary shift in London’s identity. (In keeping with London’s imminent transformation, the original Saatchi Gallery in Boundary Road was demolished and redeveloped as a cluster of contemporary homes marketed as The Collection.)
In the 2000s, London was consumed by talk of inflated property prices, hedge funds, Russian oligarchs and the arrival of the global super-rich. The art world began to establish links with a growing philanthropic class. The Frieze Art Fair opened in 2003 to much fanfare, and in little over a decade would be joined by more than 260 art fairs held annually and 180 contemporary art biennials worldwide. Despite the 2008 crash, the contemporary art market continues to set records and seems an unstoppable force. For this we should thank, in part, those collectors who became fellow travellers along the way; who lent their support because they appreciate what artists do.
Surveying the rapid development of contemporary art in Britain since the late 1980s, the recent opening of the Tate Modern extension is a reminder of just how accepting of contemporary art the public has become. Recently opened or newly expanded spaces across the country, such as Turner Contemporary, Whitworth Art Gallery and The Hepworth Wakefield, regularly report impressive audience figures, underlining the far-reaching appetite for contemporary art.
Could anyone, standing in Saatchi’s converted paint factory or Hirst’s former Port Authority building, have predicted the beginnings of such an extraordinary evolutionary curve? Was it clear that the path then being taken — signposted by numerous artist-led initiatives and institutional moments, such as Sensation at the Royal Academy in 1997 — would ultimately lead to the opening of the Tate Modern Switch House? Perhaps not, but it does beg the question: where will the path lead us next?