Tomorrow’s old masters

    The market for modern art is going through the roof. But will the Damiens and the Traceys stand the test of time along with the Rembrandts and Picassos? Waldemar Januszczak selects the living icons of British art who have the best chance of immortality

    Lots of people think the art market is booming. But they’re wrong. The art market isn’t booming, it’s going nuclear, exploding into the next dimension and running naked around the universe yelling “Geronimo!” Last June, the Manhattan magnate Ronald S Lauder shelled out $135m for a pretty portrait by Klimt. It was the most anyone had spent on a painting. But later that year, the entertainment mogul David Geffen sold his Jackson Pollock for $140m. And last November, Sotheby’s and Christie’s sold art worth $1.3 billion. In four working days.

    Jeremiahs like me assume this mega-bubble is temporary, that any moment now it’s going to pop. But the most terrifying truth about this expansion is that it shows no sign of reaching its apogee. Talk to the dealers and they see nothing on the horizon but bigger cheques. So what’s happening? Obviously the quantity of bonus money out there is a reason for the boom. Whether you work for Moneycorp in the City or Cash International on Wall Street, nobody likes the walls of their loft to look empty. And the hedge-fund managers are merely replicating what the hedge funds themselves are up to now that they’ve realised that nothing increases in value as exponentially as art. About a decade ago, the auction houses had a eureka moment and realised if they put the same resources behind new art as they put behind old masters, they would have a supply of goodies that was effectively bottomless. Unlike old masters or impressionists, the supply of contemporary art can never dry up.

    If you are not the type with a spare couple of billion to spend on art, you may assume this story isn’t for you. But I’m not sure about that. Watching the art market going mad is just as educative as watching birds hatching with Bill Oddie. As a crash course, I’ve produced a list of the 20 most important living British artists and some of their key works. This lot at least will certainly survive the trial by money.

    PETER BLAKE

    Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, album cover (1967)

    While most artists of his generation retired to the country long ago, or moved to California, the combative Peter Blake is still to be found pottering around cutting-edge London shows delivering sarcastic put-downs of this trend and that. He’s a magnificent presence. And considering that he created perhaps the most successful artistic multiple ever – cunningly disguised as the album cover for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album – this refusal to retreat from the front line is extra-special. Blake grew up in a glum bit of Kent, and was one of those cut-off kids who keep themselves sane, and full of dreams, by collecting pictures of sexy actresses and fab pop stars. It was to prove the perfect training for a pop artist. When the Beatles commissioned him in 1967 to design their Sgt Pepper cover, the idea was to assemble all the people in history whom the band would have liked to see in an imaginary audience. That’s how Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Oscar Wilde, Bob Dylan and the rest came together. John Lennon wanted Jesus and Gandhi in the crowd as well, but they were vetoed by the record company.

    Where is it? The large-scale collage was dismantled after a photoshoot. Some elements were sold to collectors

    LUCIAN FREUD

    Leigh Bowery (Seated) (1990)

    Officially the world’s greatest living painter, Freud had long been famous when he unleashed this painting at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1993 and made himself more famous still. The show had half-a-dozen paintings of the huge Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery, each more monstrous than the next. Never a quick worker, Freud was nearly 70 when he painted them, so everyone expected him to slow down further. Instead, he sped up and has been painting at a fierce lick ever since. It’s his taste for a harsh reality – strikingly unsexy yet charged with sex – that slaps you about the chops with the impact of a wet fish.

    Where is it? The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

    SARAH LUCAS

    Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992)

    Britart was probably the most dramatic art movement these shores have ever spawned. When it exploded out of nowhere in the early 1990s, and suddenly turned our art into the world leader in international modernism, most of us weren’t sure what to make of it because British art had never been the world leader in international modernism before. Lots of people around the globe tut-tutted at Britart’s excesses. But they all noticed it. Except, curiously, Tate Modern, which in the manner of a nervous parent embarrassed by the behaviour of their own kids in the park, has largely succeeded in ignoring it. If Damien Hirst is the king of Britart, then Sarah Lucas is its queen. Funny, acerbic, rude, inventive and, above all, mouthy, her work marks the first appearance on the global stage of the British ladette. There have been plenty of women artists before. But Lucas was the first who might have been discovered working at the checkout of your local Tesco. Was she ever bovvered? Leave orff! I particularly adore Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab because the eggs and the kebab need to be changed every day, and although it is a witty portrayal of the artist’s body, it also allows a startling insight into her mind. Which is clearly a female cesspit filled with all manner of dark and unsettling insights into the crudest masculine urges. British art at its noisiest.

    Who owns it? Damien Hirst

    SARAH LUCAS

    Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992)

    Britart was probably the most dramatic art movement these shores have ever spawned. When it exploded out of nowhere in the early 1990s, and suddenly turned our art into the world leader in international modernism, most of us weren’t sure what to make of it because British art had never been the world leader in international modernism before. Lots of people around the globe tut-tutted at Britart’s excesses. But they all noticed it. Except, curiously, Tate Modern, which in the manner of a nervous parent embarrassed by the behaviour of their own kids in the park, has largely succeeded in ignoring it. If Damien Hirst is the king of Britart, then Sarah Lucas is its queen. Funny, acerbic, rude, inventive and, above all, mouthy, her work marks the first appearance on the global stage of the British ladette. There have been plenty of women artists before. But Lucas was the first who might have been discovered working at the checkout of your local Tesco. Was she ever bovvered? Leave orff! I particularly adore Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab because the eggs and the kebab need to be changed every day, and although it is a witty portrayal of the artist’s body, it also allows a startling insight into her mind. Which is clearly a female cesspit filled with all manner of dark and unsettling insights into the crudest masculine urges. British art at its noisiest.

    Who owns it? Damien Hirst

    BRIDGET RILEY

    Movement in Squares (1961)

    The Tate had a Bridget Riley retrospective in 2003 that reminded us just how marvellous she is. From the moment you walked in there until long after you left, your eyes buzzed and throbbed with painful pleasure, a sensation that I imagine vibrators must bring to other bits of the human anatomy. Over the years, Riley has grown softer and more colourful, but her art remains completely devoted to full-on optical abstraction. I particularly adore her early work, which was strikingly black and white and which ended up being a huge influence on the 1960s miniskirt. This one, Movement in Squares, is a perfect example of her genius for getting her paintings to move, roll and shimmer while actually remaining perfectly still. After a good Riley exhibition, I find my eyes feel unusually clean, as if they’ve been washed in some crystal-clear mountain water. Although she remains unmistakable – one of the signature brands of British art – she has, until recently, been curiously undervalued, and still hasn’t claimed her rightful place at the summit.

    Who owns it? The Arts Council

    Where is it? The Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt

    GILBERT and GEORGE

    Singing Sculpture (1969)

    I have lots and lots of problems with Gilbert and George, and I don’t think I have ever seen a more clear-cut example of a show that needed editing than their interminable recent retrospective at Tate Modern. But nobody should doubt the ultimate value of their contribution to British art. G&G were pioneers. Their early work, which remains the most inventive and charming area of their relentless output, achieved lots of things that were notable, but for me their most valuable contribution was to give piety a good kicking. They injected British art with the humour and cheek that had been missing since Hogarth’s time. G&G themselves insisted they were bringing real life back into art, and sometimes they were. I never saw Singing Sculpture being performed, and from what I can gather it was done in different ways, but the classic version involved the two of them painting themselves gold, getting up on a pedestal, and miming along to Underneath the Arches. So it was like those living statues you see in our urban squares today, except that it happened almost 40 years ago.

    Where was it? It was performed in Europe, the US and Australia

    FRANK AUERBACH

    Camden Theatre in the Rain (1977)

    If you’re looking for a painter who is self-evidently an artistic giant, then look no further than Frank Auerbach. Everything about him is impressive. Recently, there was some noisy stuff in the papers about this particular painting fetching £1.92m at Sotheby’s, but the only real mystery is why it took so long for his prices to soar. Auerbach paints two things: people he knows well, and places he knows even better. For almost 50 years he has lived and worked in the same damp stretch of London around Mornington Crescent. Painting slowly, never going on holiday, he keeps having another go at what he’s already had so many goes at. But the results always remain fluid and spontaneous. I’ve chosen this unusually bright one because at an Auerbach show at the Hayward Gallery in 1978, I spent 40 minutes in front of it and couldn’t decide if it was angry, sad, optimistic, pessimistic, wet, dry, or what? I’m still not sure.

    Who owns it? A private collector

    ANTHONY CARO

    Early One Morning (1962)

    A golden rule of artistic importance goes something like this: those whom the times wish to make irrelevant they first make a knight of the realm. But with Sir Anthony Caro, the times may have got it wrong. Of course, it’s been many years since he did anything cutting-edge. But nothing can take away the brilliance of his early work, particularly that exciting, surprisingly elegant red whopper poetically called Early One Morning. An assistant to the great Henry Moore, Caro inherited his master’s desire to produce biggies, and a passion for metals. But only when Caro learnt to weld these metals and paint them in bright household colours did his sculptures spring to life.

    Who owns it? The Tate – though it is currently not on display

    RICHARD LONG

    A Line in the Himalayas (1975)

    Long has had so many shows over so many years that the heart forgets to skip a beat at the thought of another one. Yet he remains one of the most original sculptors there has ever been, and his relentless madcap campaign to create sculptures in the world’s most distant landscapes is a really important contribution to landscape art. In short, Richard Long is God, and the good news for collectors is that the market seems not to have realised yet. But it will. Setting off on a walk that can last hours, days or even months, and that might take him as far as Mongolia, he makes sculptures as he goes, then photographs them. He also does word pieces and extra-minimal sculptures for inside the gallery. You get the feeling he’s trying to connect with the sort of ancient meanings that led our ancestors to build Stonehenge.

    Who owns it? The Tate – though it is currently not on display

    BILL WOODROW

    Twin-Tub with Guitar (1981)

    The alchemists wanted to turn base metals into gold, something many assumed could never happen. But in 1981 I went to a show of British sculpture at the ICA, and there was Bill Woodrow achieving exactly that with old washing machines. Okay, strictly speaking, he wasn’t turning them into gold. But he was making fabulously witty sculptures out of them. And they are worth plenty today. As the original and greatest recyclist, Woodrow initiated an important strain in British art devoted to transforming the rubbishy into the desirable. In Twin-Tub with Guitar, by cutting up a washing machine and ingeniously refolding the bits, he turned it into one of the most desirable electric guitars ever made, a Gretsch White Falcon.

    Who owns it? The Tate – though it is currently not on display

    DAMIEN HIRST

    Alphaprodine spot painting (1991)

    Whatever it is that Damien Hirst’s sculptures do, his paintings do something different. The spot paintings in particular have been astonishingly influential. Three out of four designer lofts bought with loadsahedgefundmoney seem to have one on their walls, and those that don’t have one want one. Considering how many there are, the prices they continue to fetch at auction are staggering. Hirst began the spot paintings in 1988, and although they look random, there is in fact a cunning pattern running through them. Each one represents the chemical formula of a different drug. Hirst has been working his way through the pharmaceutical alphabet to create a painting for every drug from A to B – this one is “AAP”. So each painting is not only a highly effective bit of designer minimalism, but it’s different from the one before. As a marketing strategy for churning out thousands of unique things, it’s beyond brilliant.

    Who owns it? A private collector

    RON MUECK

    Dead Dad (1996-7)

    The day before Charles Saatchi’s seminal Britart exhibition, Sensation, opened at the Royal Academy in 1997, hardly anyone had heard of Ron Mueck. By the next day, all those who hadn’t heard of him before, like me, found ourselves unable to talk about anyone else. And the question ‘Have you seen Dead Dad?’ rang out across Piccadilly and echoed down every important corridor of the art world. Dead Dad was an extraordinary mix of the very touching and the very creepy. The sculpture was a perfect replica of the corpse of Mueck’s naked father, so spookily detailed that you could count the hairs in his nose. But it was only two-thirds of the size of a real man. So as you looked at it, two conflicting responses welled up in you. The first was the unsettling feeling that you were in the presence of an actual corpse. But because he was so diddy, you also felt strangely maternal towards him. And wanted to hold him and hug him and protect him. Weird. Mueck perfected his hyperrealism skills working for children’s television in Australia. Saatchi discovered him by chance when Mueck produced some props for his mother-in-law, the marvellous painter Paula Rego. Since his emergence, he has created a stunning body of work that prompts severe panic attacks about reality.

    Who owns it? A private collector

    YOKO ONO

    Painting to Hammer a Nail In (1961)

    All of us fantasise about being a fly on the wall at a particular moment in history, and I would really like to have been there when John Lennon met Yoko Ono. She was a London artist at the time, specialising in weird happenings. The fashionably wacky Indica Gallery gave her a show in 1966, and this fabulous piece was in it. It required the visitor to stand on a chair and bang a nail into a white wooden panel. Lennon came in and asked Ono if he could hammer in a nail too. Yes, she said, providing he paid five shillings. In that case, quipped Lennon, could he hammer in an imaginary nail? Yoko was a really big deal in the international art world at the time. Lennon was the intruder. But this didn’t stop her being hounded out of Britain by an abominable British media. The real tragedy was not the Beatles splitting up but the shoddy treatment of the brilliant Yoko Ono.

    Who owns it? The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

    TRACEY EMIN

    My Bed (1999)

    I would have liked to choose the infamous tent embroidered with the names of everyone she has ever slept with to represent the notorious Tracey Emin, but it was destroyed in a fire. So I’ve gone for her next most outrageous work, My Bed, an entry for the Turner prize in 1999. Tracey’s sheets, ashtray, bedside literature, morning-after pills, condoms and knickers have all been transported from her bedroom so that everyone can see exactly how she lives. As Britain’s official representative at this year’s über-prestigious Venice Biennale, Emin is about to become more notorious still – by showing paintings. Strangely enough, her work remains modestly priced.

    Who owns it? The Saatchi Gallery – though it is currently not on display

    JAKE and DINOS CHAPMAN

    Hell (1998-2000)

    Pick a war, any war, and you have all the explanation you need for the Chapman brothers. They make art that accuses their fellow humans of unimaginable terrors and crimes. As Hannah Arendt noted in her 1960s report on the Eichmann trial, evil is banal, and the Chapmans emphasise that point by making their art out of stuff that can be bought at Hamleys: toy soldiers, blood from a tube and scary plastic monsters. Their anti-war masterpiece, Hell, consisted of nine grotesque scenes of carnage and violence.

    Where is it? The original was destroyed in the Momart fire of 2004, but the Chapman brothers are working on a replacement

    GRAYSON PERRY

    We’ve Found the Body of Your Child (2000)

    The canny modern artist needs a gimmick to stand out from the crowd. And Grayson Perry, the transvestite potter who won the Turner prize in 2003, has come up with a humdinger. I don’t know what’s more extraordinary about Perry, the fact that he’s a potter or the transvestism. Both seem to get slightly in the way of his seriousness. On closer inspection, he turns out to be a complex and feisty social observer who uses the surface innocence of his pots to worm his way into dark corners of the British psyche. From his own sexuality to the murderous instincts of country folk, there is no topic he won’t broach. The pots are gorgeous too.

    Who owns it? The Saatchi Gallery – though it is currently not on display

    CHRIS OFRILI

    The Upper Room (1999-2002)

    It took me a while to come round to Chris Ofili. He emerged ever so noisily in the middle of the 1990s with a silly-sounding strategy of leaning all his pictures on chunks of elephant dung, which made his work instantly notorious, and very smelly. In 1998 he won the Turner prize, and I thought that would be that with him. But an impressive appearance in the British pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2003 convinced me of the irresistibility of Ofili’s art, and the more I see of him the more significant I believe him to be. As the first black artist from Britain to achieve proper international prominence, Ofili is playing a role that nobody else can ever repeat. Apart from the elephant dung, his first pictures featured Aboriginal dots, cuttings from porn mags, African bead work, hip-hop sprayings, and the heroes of obscure blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. So how they managed to hang together as beautifully as they did I will never know. The Upper Room was acquired by the Tate in controversial circumstances in 2005. Ofili was on the Tate’s board of trustees at the time, so lots of people did lots of whispering. But the truth is that the nation is fantastically lucky to own this. Mysterious, hypnotic, filled with mouth-wateringly gorgeous paintings, The Upper Room is easily the finest Tate acquisition of recent years.

    Who owns it? The Tate, though it is currently not on display

    RICHARD HAMILTON

    Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956)

    Hamilton is now an astonishing 85 years old. But a genuine innovator spits in the face of time, and he is still experimenting madly with every new technology, still digging away at the fabric of the modern world, searching for its DNA. That’s what he’s doing here. This tiny collage, only about 10in by 10in, is universally recognised as the first ever piece of pop art. The beefcake holding the giant lollipop that gave its name to a whole art movement is Zabo, a Californian bodybuilder. The pin-up on the settee, the TV, the vacuum cleaner, and the movie playing through the window have all been cut out from American magazines and glued together to form this trendy London interior. Was the country really being liberated from post-war gloom by these go-ahead imports, or was it being colonised?

    Who owns it? Zundel collection, Kunsthalle, Tubingen, Germany

    DAMIEN HIRST

    Mother and Child, Divided (1993)

    Hirst is the only artist I have selected twice, but, believe me, he warrants it. His arrival was nothing less than history-changing. Before, artists were a highly dependent breed of creative, controlled by their dealers, showing in galleries and waiting to be noticed. He declined to join in with this process, and invented a new one. Basically, he seized power. Although his sculpture is astonishing in itself, it is his redefinition of the role of the artist that will eventually be seen as his most significant contribution. Today he creates his own shows, he collects, he starts restaurants, and I hear he’s soon to become the owner of his own museum. While the most notorious of his early sculptures was his pickled shark or, to give it its proper title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, for its sheer wow factor I choose Mother and Child, Divided. I will never forget the hot day at the Venice Biennale when I came across this thing, and found myself strolling down the centre of a cow.

    Who owns it? Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Norway

    BANKSY

    Chalk Farm mural (2006)

    Once every decade or so, an artist emerges who isn’t only churning out good work but seems also to be redefining what artists do. In the 1950s the great Richard Hamilton was such a figure. In the 1990s it was Damien Hirst. Right now, it’s Banksy.

    Nobody is supposed to know who Banksy is. He’s a street outlaw, a mystery man, a guerrilla artist who pops up in our streets at nght and sprays graffiti masterpieces onto our walls. Or who sneaks into our museums and adds cheeky examples of his own work to their collections. His exploits are certainly fun to follow. And his amusing brand of agit-pop, passed on from website to website, circulating so freely in cyberspace, is perfectly judged for the current political climate. Ever since Angelina Jolie spent nearly £200,000 buying Banksy pictures at a show in LA, he has also metamorphosed into a thoroughly surprising art-market hit. It’s probably too early to be certain that Banksy really is an artist of long-term significance. But my gut instinct is that he is.

    Where is it? On the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1