The YBAs

YBA=Young British Artists. Both title and acronym refer to a loose group of visual artists who began to exhibit together in London 1988. The first use of the term “young British artists” was by Michael Corris in ArtForum (May 1992) and the acronym  “YBA” (or “yBa”) was coined by Simon Ford in  1996 in his feature “Myth Making” for the March issue of Art Monthly magazine. Since then it has manifested into a historic term because most of the YBAs were born in the mid-1960s, with an active period from the 1980s to the late 1990s, though many still make art today— just not large group exhibits. Though strictly speaking, it includes only those artists who showed at Freeze, or Sensation. However, the name is also used in a broader sense to embrace all progressive, avant-garde British artists who achieved recognition during the late 1980s and 90s. A new termPost-YBAs has been coined to describe British artists emerging in the 2000s. They include Darren Almond, Mike Nelson, Tim Noble, Oliver Payne, Nick Relph, Eva Rothschild, Simon Starling, David Thorpe, Sue Webster, Carey Young, and others.

Most of the YBAs graduated from Goldsmiths in the BA Fine Art course in the late 1980s; studying under the likes of Michael Craig-Martin and Richard Wentworth who undoubtably had a huge impact on the approach to art making these young artists made after graduating. From the humble start of exhibiting in warehouses their innovative and provocative shows quickly gained popularity, attracting the attention cultural royalty like Charles Saatchi. The post-war authority of things socially acceptable, Saatchi  invested much of his money in supporting and collecting his favorites like Damien Hirst and Rich Wentworth. Saatchi even went beyond funding and collaborated with Hirst and Wentworth in organizing exhibitions. Art from the YBAs also provided the catalysis so desperately needed to rejuvenate the British art scene, and even starting artistic atmospheres where previously there had been none. 

The six exhibitions the serve to unify this loose group of art affiliates were held between March 1992 and November 1996 at the Saatchi Gallery, London. The genesis of the YBAs can be traced to a 1988 warehouse show in London,  entitled Frieze and it was curated by none other than Damien Hirst. Hirst exhibited works by himself and 15 of his fellow Goldmiths’ students, including Angela Bulloch, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, Richard Patterson and Fiona Rae. Subsequent group exhibitions cemented the artists’ reputations for independence, savvy entrepreneurial skills and the ability to manipulate the media. The warehouse show Modern Medicine (1990) in particular demonstrated the artists skill at transforming different media and was also curated by Hirst, but in this instance he partnered with journalist Carl Freedman (b 1965) Later Freedman curated Minky Manky (1995; London, S. London A.G.). But the consolidation of the artists’ status was cemented in 1995 with a large-scale group exhibition Brilliant! held at the Walker Art Center a respected art museumin Minneapolis, USA.

Rachel Whiteread, cast of an apartment complex, 1992

Works by Young British Artists include all forms of painting, a wide range of sculpture and assemblage, contemporary video and installation art, a variety of photography, and conceptual art.  Thus famous works of Britart have included: maggots and dead animals (Hirst); concrete casts of whole houses (Rachel Whiteread); a bed surrounded by highly personal detritus including condoms (Tracey Emin); found objects crushed by a steamroller (Cornelia Parker); elephant dung (Chris Ofili); and frozen blood (Marc Quinn) and many more varied materials. Numerous YBA works have also employed a number of controversial references some of which are such as Jenny Saville’s paintings of grossly obese nude female forms and the Chapman brothers’ savagely mutilated shop-window dummies. They force us to consider these topics with shock tactics and they were quite successful. Other artists made conceptual video art like Mark Wallinger’s Turner Prize exhibit, a 2-hour film of a person wandering around an art gallery in a bear suit; or Gillian Wearing’s video of actors dressed in police uniforms who stood still for an hour in total silence; or Martin Creed’s installation of a white room with a single light bulb blinking off and on. Despite the varied showcase of subject matter, styles, and medium, there remains a common “anything-goes attitude” to materials and the creative process. Their works also share clear influence from Marcel Duchamp in the prominence given to conceptual art, found objects and unconventional, even humorous interpretations of everyday life.

Damien Hirst, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” a tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde, 1991

I also think they all model after Joseph Beuys in their experiments with positioning the artist within society, asking what is the artists’s purpose or message? Gavin considers how his art is influenced by time passing showing his work through the lens the future as if we are looking back at his work, and in some cases as though he were already deceased. Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (tiger shark, glass and steel, 1991; London, Saatchi Gal.) also underscores the prospect of imminent death. Sarah Lucas’ Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (photograph, fried eggs, kebab and table, 1992; London, Saatchi Gal.) asks us to consider issues of sexuality with food items foreign to the gallery environment. The signature pieces of Gavin Turk, like Cave (ceramic, 1991; London, Saatchi Gal.), explore the relationship of the artist to his work and his public. Other aYBAs include Chris Ofili, Marc Quinn, Rachel Whiteread (featured in Freeze the first of Saatchi’s group exhibitions), Dinos and Jake Chapman and Ron Mueck.

Tracey Emin, “My Bed” 1999

Tracey Emin, “Tent”

Even  though the group enjoyed much success, YBAs were heavily criticized for their lack of craftsmanship and other artistic traits, by numerous art critics the composer Simon Rattle, and the playwright Tom Stoppard. But by and large the British public have enthusiastically embraced the YBAs for their contributions to the visual arts establishment. One reason for this, is that there works have rescued in almost every aspect Britain’s  contemporary art, significantly raising museum attendance figures in the process. They also contributed to the success of a whole new generation of contemporary galleries, including Jay Jopling’s White Cube, Victoria Miro, Karsten Schubert, Sadie Coles, Maureen Paley’s Interim Art, and Antony Wilkinson Gallery -as as increasing the circulation of contemporary British art magazines.

Another one of the best aspects of this group, in my opinion is the evident contributions of female artists. Gillian Wearing, Tracey Emin (nominated in 1999 Turner Prize for My Bed). Fiona Rae,  (1963 Untitled, Emergency Room) and Jenny Saville and more have all benefited from the publicity of associating with the group finding much success and a generally equal amount of respect and fame as their male peers as well as receiving respect from their male contemporaries.

Here is a listing of the artists that exhibited with the first two shows (the shows that bonded the group) and a list of additional artists who exhibited with the group at later dates.

Frieze Exhibitors:

Brilliant! Exhibitors:

Other YBAs

Marc Quin, “Kate Moss”

Damien Hirst, “Dot Painting”

 

Gavin Turk

 

Sarah Lucas, Spamaggedon (2004)

Gavin Turk, “Gavin Turk Takes the Biscuit” 2006

 

 

An Oak Tree

“An Oak Tree” Michael Craig-Martin, 1973

Conceptual art can be challenging and polarizing. Generally this is because the nature of conceptual art tends to be abstract, obscure, and elusive as the primary focus is the “idea” of the piece rather than any form or sense of aesthetic. There are very few guidelines and little to nothing available to prepare viewers for what to expect. The lack of  definitive structure allows the viewer freedom to conceptualize and muse over the “idea” of the art piece, and while this can be liberating and exciting for one it can just as easily push away another who wants simply to enjoy something aesthetically pleasing.

So all of that babble was to pump you up for the the conceptual instillation An Oak Tree! An Oak Tree was created by Michael Craig-Martin and first displayed in 1973 in his own gallery. The original is in the National Gallery of Australia and an artist’s copy is on loan to the Tate gallery. The installation is comprised of two units arranged according to specific presentation guidelines: the object is a pristine French Duralex glass of water measured to the artist’s stipulation placed on a glass shelf fixed to the wall with metal brackets exactly 253 centimeters above the ground, also mounted on the wall is a text. The text appears in red on white paper, and upon its debut was dispensed as a handout. Craig-Martin has stressed that the components should maintain an immaculate appearance and in the event of deterioration the brackets should be resprayed and the glass and shelf replaced.  

Now for the good stuff. The text makes the assertion through a semiotic argument that Craig-Martin was changed the glass of water into an oak tree by means of transubstantiation. He was able to do this without altering the “accidents” of the glass of water; and accidents are defined as color, weight, size, feel… etc so the “actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.” Craig-Martin asserts the impossible with that sentence, clarifying specifically that no, this is not symbolic of an oak tree but that a real oak tree is present, right in front of you, in the form of a glass of water.

“I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present in the form of a glass of water. [And] it would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.”

I am sure there are some of you wondering what is going on, why Craig-Martin would claim that he has transformed a glass of water into an oak tree and how this is art. First it is important to understand that transubstantiation is the same device that the Catholic Church uses during the Eucharist to transform bread and wine/juice into the body and blood of Christ when the worshipers take communion. They also assert the impossible and ask worshipers to believe the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood during Eucharist while maintaining an unchanged appearance. In the same way Craig-Martin’s text asks the viewer to believe that the glass of water has become an oak tree without altering the “accidents” of a glass of water. One simply has to accept that the artist is right, relying on mutual belief between artist and viewer.

Secondly An Oak Tree deconstructs transubstantiation demonstrating that the belief of both artist and viewer has significant power over the formation of art, and in fact belief can be understood as the most basic and essential element of art. At least in this example of conceptual art. Craig-Martin considered the work of art to demonstrate the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say

The reception of the piece was divided to say the least. Richard Cork called its original display in 1974 “one of the most challenging moments” of contemporary art. Some artists and critics were highly admirable while others where full of straight up scorn. I would read comments from Damien Hirst praising the piece as one of the greatest sculptures ever then shortly after find out that critic David Lee had ranted that “Some of the stuff that’s called art is just damned stupid. I mean, ‘That glass of water’s an oak tree’ kind of thing.”

More divisive opinions abound with critics criticizing each other’s opinions of the work as well. In response to Nigel Gosling’s praise of the work, Giles Auty sarcastically, though poignantly, observes, “How would the self-same critic react if, on ordering oak planks for an outhouse, he were sent instead a bucketful of water? Would he gently muse on ‘the subtle and obscure waters of identity’—or make immediate reflections on the mental well-being of his timber suppliers?” Michael Daley also condemns Craig-Martin’s admirers saying that they should have been snubbing the “self-deluding, pretentious offerings of Craig-Martin and his like” instead of  “eulogising” them for the past twenty years.

In my opinion, I believe that the lasting effect an artwork has, what significant contributions the piece adds to the cannon of art history be it in the form of discord or admiration, adds to its importance over time. I don’t think anyone could say it better than Sir Nicholas Serota in his Richard Dimbleby Lecture on November 23:

 “We may not ‘like’ Craig-Martin’s work, but it certainly reminds us that the appreciation of all art involves an act of faith comparable [to belief].”

You have to understand that An Oak Tree was one of the first of its kind. It laid a foundation for later conceptual artists to build upon. We knew that art could take many forms thanks to the modernism and Dada, but Crag-Martin demonstrated that art can be created from abstract ideas, faith held between two believers. And An Oak Tree only works if a mutual belief is shared between viewer and artist. In this sense it is almost an intimate understanding, a mutual agreement almost like a shared secret or religious bond.

Both the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy praise the piece, recognizing it as a turning point in the development of conceptual art. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy records acclaim such as “to fail to consider it a great work of art because it fails to give rise to a distinctively aesthetic kind of pleasure does not actually undermine the project at all. Conceptual art, as we now know, is about conveying meaning through a vehicular medium, and not to provide its audience with experiences of, say, beauty. Any attack on this fundamental feature of conceptual art targets not so much an individual piece but the artform as such.”

 So what I hope to persuade you with this post is that yes, I get it, conceptual art is not for everyone. But having said that, I think it is important for everyone to recognize when something is significant to a larger social and historical context whether they like it or not. Liking art is arbitrary to the influence it held during its time and continues to hold ever after.

Here’s the text so you may read it:

Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?

A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.

Q. The accidents?

A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size …

Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?

A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.

Q. It looks like a glass of water.

A. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.

Q. Can you prove what you’ve claimed to have done?

A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.

Q. Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?

A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.

Q. Isn’t this just a case of the emperor’s new clothes?

A. No. With the emperor’s new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn’t there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.

Q. Was it difficult to effect the change?

A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.

Q. When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree?

A. When I put the water in the glass.

Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?

A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.

Q. Then intention causes the change?

A. I would say it precipitates the change.

Q. You don’t know how you do it?

A. It contradicts what I feel I know about cause and effect.

Q. It seems to me that you are claiming to have worked a miracle. Isn’t that the case?

A. I’m flattered that you think so.

Q. But aren’t you the only person who can do something like this?

A. How could I know?

Q. Could you teach others to do it?

A. No, it’s not something one can teach.

Q. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an art work?

A. Yes.

Q. What precisely is the art work? The glass of water?

A. There is no glass of water anymore.

Q. The process of change?

A. There is no process involved in the change.

Q. The oak tree?

A. Yes. The oak tree.

Q. But the oak tree only exists in the mind.

A. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water. As the glass of water was a particular glass of water, the oak tree is also a particular oak tree. To conceive the category ‘oak tree’ or to picture a particular oak tree is not to understand and experience what appears to be a glass of water as an oak tree. Just as it is imperceivable it also inconceivable.

Q. Did the particular oak tree exist somewhere else before it took the form of a glass of water?

A. No. This particular oak tree did not exist previously. I should also point out that it does not and will not ever have any other form than that of a glass of water.

Q. How long will it continue to be an oak tree?

A. Until I change it

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

So where do I start with this outrageous character of Dada legend and lore? Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is pretty much the founder of Dada in New York during the 1913-20’s. (Dada came about as a reaction against the academy’s stuffy rules regulating, defining, organizing, and otherwise controlling an understanding/definition of art; the anti-art scene then escalated into anti-culutre movement in part as a search for meaning and consolation in the catastrophic aftermath of WWI.) Marcel DuChamp, her contemporary and friend, credits her as being the original dadaist stating that, “she is not a futurist, she is the future.”

It is right that DuChamp should be so admirable of The Baroness. She brought Dada to the fore front of culture in at the start of the new century in New York by pushing the boundaries of elite culture. Dada’s darling went to war with the bourgeois, attacking decency with her explicit dadaist poetry, constructed ready-mades that upset traditional art making practices, crafted dangerously anti-religous sculptures, and designed her own elaborate costumes from found and stolen items. The Baroness did not just cause a riot, she was a riot, making scene with her outlandish, ridiculous behavior everywhere she went. In short, the woman was a hot mess. Today we’d call her a ratchet, with the singular gift of provoking everyone around her into a hissy fit.

The Baroness was born July 12,1874 in Germany, she studied art in Dachau, near Munich before marrying her first husband in 1901, Berlin-based architect August Endell, at which time she became Else Endell. Ever one for a good scandal, she lived an avant-garde bohemian lifestyle, having an open relationship with her husband while working as an actress and vaudeville performer. She had numerous affairs with artists in Berlin, Munich and Italy, and in 1902 she became involved romantically with a friend of Endell’s, the minor poet and translator Felix Paul Greve (later the Canadian author Frederick Philip Grove), and all three went to Palermo in late January 1903. They then lead a faery nomadic lifestyle, traveling to various places, including Wollerau, Switzerland and Paris-Plage, France.  She found work modeling for artists in Cincinnati, and made her way east via West Virginia and Philadelphia.

Elsa became a baroness by marrying Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven in 1913 and maintained that title the rest of her life, despite numerous affairs. She exploited her aristocratic status as a weapon to assault bourgeois taste. One of my favorite Baroness antics was her single-handed effort to present futuristic fashion to the bohemians of Greenwich Village, by scandalizing her neighbors parading about semi-nude along 14th Street, barely covered with feathers. It is evident that her preferred method for undermining the avant-garde was to always be as naked as she could get, even wearing nothing but tea-balls on her breasts while reciting poetry on street corners.

Until recently, The Baroness was best known for her  provocative poetry, which was finally published in a 2011 posthumous compilation of her writings Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Irene Gammel. (The New York Times praised the book as one of the notable art books of 2011.) She liked to experiment with punctuation and grammar to challenge the structure of langue. She made good use of dashes to set unique tempos and almost actual motion within her sentences, and created portmanteau compositions that made a mockery of coherency with non-sensical phrases.  As the poem “Loss” states:  “She is mad— / I am lost— / Utter.” (Loss, 234)

When reading her poems you often have to pause to rethink her meaning. I find I have to recompose the poems, decide which statements are spoken by which voice/persona, in what order lines are meant to be read, and in what combination with the lines surrounding it.  Take a second look at the tercet cited above—here the two-syllable word line “Utter” may be a command “to utter” and if so who is to speak?  Is the command directed to her, us, or is it the owl in the poem? Or is “utter” not a verb at all but a displaced adjective, one which should be read as if it precedes the word “lost” in the penultimate line? And if so does The Baroness ask the reader if this refers to utter loss? And who utterly lost and what was it? Or is the speaker utterly lost? Or is she talking about a random cow’s utters?! By being evasive with layers of meaning, The Baroness wrote very polarizing poetry, causing some people to either find their meanings very personal to each reader or very isolating and shallow. Ezra Pound was not always her biggest fan, but what does he know?

Another one of her stylistic elements is her laudable exploration of the thin line—made up of one to three syllables and streaking down the pages like a stripe, an arrow’s shadowtrail. At times these tiny lines create a clipped, staccato pacing, at others they embody speed and slippage; are aquatic in their rush. This is especially true in poems where sound seems beyond control, tumbling and falling

And of course she is never shy about discussing sex. A lot of her portmanteaus are highly explicit, such as “Kissambushed” and “Phalluspistol.”  The Little Review put her on the map in 1918 by publishing 20 of her poems and more than a dozen of her essays and notes. The magazine thereupon gave the baroness a forum for the next four years, establishing her among Dada luminaries. One of the Baroness’ poems, reproduced by Gammel, reads:

No spinsterlollypop for me!
Yes! We have no bananas
I got lusting palate
I always eat them…
There’s the vibrator
Coy flappertoy! …
A dozen cocktails, please!

Yup. Those are blatant phallic references. By today’s standards perhaps these aren’t so shocking, but in the early 1900s worn were still admired for their gentle and modest qualities. And even men could get into trouble for being so open about sex acts.

The Baroness also worked with found object making assemblage sculptures and collage paintings while in New York. Her habit of collecting rubbish and refuse to create sculptures of anti-art greatly offended art critics. But her radical behavior impressed and inspired her contemporaries. She was feared and admired by the likes of Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Djuna Barnes who all, like Ezra Pound, found themselves discussing her work in verse whether they liked it or not. And the very first movie made by Duchamp and Man Ray was about Elsa, titled The Baroness Shaves her Pubic Hair. The film cements her status Queen of Dada, but sadly only a handful of film stills have been salvaged by history. She is featured in many other Dada artists works, adding further testament to the depth of her influence and the admiration held to her by contemporaries.

Being friends with DuChamp, The Baroness was likely also involved in the conception of the famous ready-made, Fountain (1917). As Irene Gammel has documented, the choice of a urinal as art work is more in line with Freytag-Loringhoven’s scatological aesthetics than with Duchamp’s.  Moreover, Duchamp indicates in a letter to his sister written in 1917 that a female friend of his had sent him the urinal for submission at the Independents Exhibition. Rediscovered by the Whitney Museum in New York City in 1996, her Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (no longer extant) is an example of her ready-made pieces. She also contributed to New York Dada by collaborating with Morton Schamberg on the 1917 assemblage sculpture God, which is constructed of plumbing materials.

Unfortunately her death was not a glamorous or scandalous as her lifestyle. Finding herself finically insecure, in 1923, The Baroness went back to Berlin, expecting better opportunities to make money. Instead she came home to an economically devastated post-World War I Germany. Regardless of her difficulties in Weimar Germany, she remained there, penniless and on the verge of insanity. Though she still had several friends in the American expatriate community, in particular Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, and Peggy Guggenheim, who provided emotional and financial support, she continued to deteriorate over the next few months.  She died on December, 14 1927 of gas suffocation after the gas was left on in her flat. She may have forgotten to turn the gas off, or someone else may have turned it on; the circumstances were never clear. She is buried in Paris, France at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

So there you have it. The Baroness is the original socially unacceptable bad girl. Her life reminds us that Miley Cyrus only wishes she could be as naughty as The Baroness, and Madonna and Lady gaga have nothing on her scanty outfits. I leave you with what is my favorite poem, for now, and I’ll also leave a few of images of her art and costumes. I highly recommend you read the Gammel book and check out this link to her digital library hosted by the University of Maryland digital library: http://www.lib.umd.edu/dcr/collections/EvFL-class/index.html

Ah Me!

Trust me
I do agree
Madam—I firmly stand that ground
Coitus is paramount
Ab-so-lu-te-ly!

Nay—Mr. Twitch do me allow
To cool define: when you know how!
As poetry—coitus urges
Driven courses rhythmic surges
Energy—
Executive ability.
Fancy’s wing composed complex
Genius sex’
Bagpipe spell
Sunsirens’ crimsoncruising yell
It is—

Else:
Hell!
Well?
Saucerorbs agog enorm
Smirks he
Ah me!
I don’t perform. (43)

“God” Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Limbswish, sculpture 1917-1919

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven 1874, Swinemunde, Germany – 1927, Paris Portrait of Marcel Duchamp 1919 Collage, pastel, and ink on board 31 x 46 cm

The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in her Greenwich Village apartment, December, 1915

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Wheels are Growing on Rose Bushes, 1921-22 Ink on paper, 5 3/4 x 8 3/4 inches