Modern art in Britain used to be rather provincial. Not any more. Norman Rosenthal, who recalls visiting the Freeze exhibition a decade ago with Damien Hirst, says London is now a contenderby Norman Rosenthal / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
It is autumn 1997, nearly the end of the 20th century, and Sensation, an exhibition of new British art, arrives at the Royal Academy. Not all new British art, but a good and handsome cross-section of it, courtesy of its greatest single patron, Charles Saatchi. It is now almost a decade (a long time in the history of any art movement) since Freeze, that remarkably resonant exhibition conceived and organised by the young Damien Hirst and his mates in a warehouse in London’s Docklands. That was in the summer of 1988: 17 artists were represented in Freeze; nine of them are participating in Sensation. Some of the others remain prominent, although their works happen not to have been acquired by Saatchi, who collects according to his own taste. A few have disappeared from view. One thing is certain: the majority of artists in Freeze, along with others using similar strategies for making and mediating art, have come to dominate the British art scene. Moreover, many have made a considerable impact on both sides of the Atlantic and further afield. Whatever happens next, these artists can no more be written out of the art history books than can the Pre-Raphaelites, the Vorticists, the Camden Town Group-or, nearer our own day, the British Pop artists or the new sculptors of the 1960s and the 1970s, many of whom are still prominent.
Art arises out of previous art and recent generations serve as inspiration to new work, which none the less has very different, more contemporary concerns. But as far as international reputation is concerned, it appears that the latest new generation of British artists is having considerably more impact than its predecessors. British art, even since Henry Moore, has always appeared to itself and to the outside world to be a little behind, lacking the innovation that is central to modern art. It was for that reason tinged with a certain indefinable, if attractive, provinciality. This is clearly no longer the case. Or is it? Perhaps one of the questions this exhibition will answer is precisely that-whether art in Britain, never quite central to the European cultural experience, nor quite radical in terms of the great American art experiment that commenced with Jackson Pollock, can now hold its own as second to none. Can London become the unchallenged centre for contemporary art? In the past, Paris, New York and even D?sseldorf have…