With the opening of the Saatchi Collection, a new era of British art collecting began. The first exhibition was a masterpiece of curatorial strategy: the last soup can Warhol painted alongside the first he printed; a wall of Brice Mardens, all from the same year... The catalogue should have been as exciting as the work on display. Instead, it was old-fashioned, poorly printed and tackily designed, the text consisting of hack essays by writers old enough to know better. So a potential coup became a dismal failure, all the more surprising because Charles Saatchi worked in advertising. Why was Saatchi, of all people, unable to find a suitable corporate identity for his artworks? Perhaps the reason was that the collection was in flux. The sale at Gagosian, in particular, was a shock not only to gallery-owners but also to supporters who assumed that museum-style tactics would prevail... Saatchi's model exhibition space had turned out to be less stable than anyone had hoped, except, latterly, in one respect: the decision to buy British. Damien Hirst's sculptures were the prelude to the current phase - a gesture of support for younger, local artists, but in terms of the history of the Saatchi collection itself, a deviation from the high modernism with which it had begun, when Doris Saatchi, now Doris Lockhart, was a powerful influence.
What the current purchases might mean is the subject of the new Saatchi Collection catalogue, Shark Infested Waters. A record of Saatchi's recent British acquisitions, it is by a single author, Sarah Kent. As ever, Kent is intelligent, readable, clear and honest, and it is interesting to see how she copes with the problem of the long essay. Her solution is as straightforward as usual. After explaining that interpretations, not value judgements, are her concern, she writes about each artist referring only to books outside an immediate art context. But despite the fact that she acquits herself perfectly, it is impossible not to conclude that Kent was expected to perform a conjuring trick: to make Saatchi's British 90s collection resemble a unified whole. Damien Hirst emerges as the only begetter of current British art, a claim scarcely sustainable given the eclecticism of the selection. Admittedly, Saatchi Collection artists Gary Hume and Fiona Rae were Hirst's contemporaries on the Goldsmiths B.A. course and were among his choices for his first exhibition 'Freeze', but why were they included in Saatchi's 90s collection while other contemporaries were not? (Simon Patterson is only one of a number of serious omissions, while Angus Fairhurst is represented not by a work of his own but by Abigail Lane's sculpture of him flaunting his naked buttocks.)
These days, the influence of Goldsmiths' on the Saatchi collection has less to do with the B.A. course than the M.A. All products of that course, Glenn Brown, Stephen Murphy, Mark Wallinger and Carina Weidle represent various trains of thought: Brown's a study in intellectual and manual contortionism and a prolonged meditation on identity and fame; Murphy's a nod towards pantheism and reincarnation; Wallinger's a set of observations on power, history and politics; Weidle's - represented, sadly, by only one phase of her work - thoughts on anything at all. Like David Leapman, another ex-Goldsmiths B.A. student, represented in the Saatchi collection only by recent paintings, hers is independent work. These days, perhaps the term 'disaffiliated' could sum up Saatchi's attitude to 90s art. Opposing points of view are represented by these new purchases. They seem to contrast with the ostrich strategy cultivated in Britain not by the avant-garde but by Saatchi's Old Guard: Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff, artists who espoused conservatism as if it were a religion. Depending on your point of view, theirs was either 'timeless' 20th century pastiche or unadulterated fogeydom: a refusal to adapt which allied them with a moribund aristocracy for whom it was natural to deplore change. But without the calculatedly 'timeless' feel of this all-male club, Simon Callery or Jenny Saville or Simon English (admittedly a more thoughtful and complex case) or, to a lesser extent, Joanna Price or John Greenwood would not have painted the way they do. And the fact that they themselves involve a level of irony or potential irony which admits a relinquishment of common sincerity only makes meaning harder to plot.
So many of the new Saatchi purchases are wedded to the ideal of this un-avant-garde avant-garde that it is gratifying to see who takes up the challenge and deals self-consciously with that very issue. Mark Wallinger does, while Alex Landrum aspires to a styless style through which other decisions can be read. But as Kent sees it, conflicting attitudes are less important to the new Saatchi purchases than an ability to deal with 'issues' and to deal with them in terms of specifically British solutions. So sexism (dealt with by Marcus Harvey); masculinity (Simon English); truth, representation and language (Alex Hartley, Brad Lochore, Alex Landrum, Glenn Brown); the body (Hadrian Piggott, Jenny Simpson); violence and unrest (Joanna Price); women, domesticity and death (Rachel Whiteread, Rose Finn-Kelsey); identity (Abigail Lane, Rod Dickinson) and other talking points are argued from a British angle. There are two possible reactions to this. One is to say that meaning now has an urgency it did not previously possess: that significance in a painting and in a daily newspaper are closer to each other than ever. If this is the case, then in a moment the presence of one entire era of Saatchi purchases has been ignored. 'Il faut être absolument moderne.' Baudelaire's advice rings in our ears. But which is more modern: a Frank Auerbach painted by Frank Auerbach or a Frank Auerbach painted by Glenn Brown? Which fulfils Baudelaire's dictum better: a Simon Callery or an Alex Landrum? That each new move that Saatchi makes seems to undermine his former decisions may not matter. It is no sin to change your mind. But the standard has fallen, the choices are not always of the best, novelty value and newsworthiness seem to have become artistic criteria. Knowing what we know now about the Saatchi Collection, the second interpretation of the new acquisitions might be that it is simply another attempt at instant art history, and a flawed one at that.