Articles and Features

Female Iconoclasts: Tracey Emin 

Art that Imitates Life, Traumas and Everlasting Love

Tracy Emin portrait
Tracey Emin. Photo by Harry Weller. Courtesy of White Cube

By Shira Wolfe

“I realised that I was much better than anything I’d ever made.” 

Tracey Emin

In this article series, we discuss some of the most boundary-breaking female iconoclasts of our time; women who defied social conventions in order to pursue their passion and contribute their unique vision to society. This edition features Tracey Emin (b. 1963), the influential English artist known for her unabashedly autobiographical art. Her current exhibition at White Cube New York, titled “Lovers Grave,” sees a renewed commitment to painting and a continued dedication to brave, personal work. The exhibition runs through 13 January 2024. 

“Enfant Terrible” Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin rose to fame in the 1980s as one of the “enfants terribles” of the art world, along with the Young British Artists, a group of visual artists also including Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst, who began exhibiting controversial artworks together in London. She works in various media including painting, drawing, neon art, sculpture, installation, film and photography, and her works are autobiographical and unapologetically confessional. It was during her studies at the Royal College of Art that Emin became disillusioned with painting as the most elevated art form, connecting it to the bourgeois idea of art merely for interior decoration. She decided to create something totally new, and to use her own life as her art, stating: “I realised that I was much better than anything I’d ever made.” 

One of her most spoken-about artworks is Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963—1995 (1995), a tent on which she applied the names of everyone she’d ever shared a bed with, exhibited at Charles Saatchi’s notorious Sensation exhibition. In 1999, Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) was shortlisted for the Turner Prize, making waves in the media as a controversial artwork and contributing to the artist’s fame. This seminal artwork was a readymade installation of her own dirty, disheveled bed surrounded by miscellaneous objects like used condoms, a pregnancy test, cigarette butts, bloodstained underwear, and empty vodka bottles, remnants of several days spent in bed and spiraling into a post-break-up breakdown.

In 2007, Emin represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. She was appointed Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2011 and was made Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her contributions to the visual arts in 2012. 

“In these works, love is buried, and yet from the sepulchre, new life forms emerge – in the artist’s words, ‘like a phoenix rising from the ashes’.”

White Cube New York
Painting from the Tracey Emin exhibition titled 'Lovers Grave'
Tracey Emin, And It was Love (2023)
Acrylic on canvas 80 7/8 x110 1/16 in. | (205.5 x 279.5 cm)
© Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2023. Photo © Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy of White Cube

Tracey Emin: Lovers Grave at White Cube New York

In spring 2020, Emin was diagnosed with bladder cancer. She underwent treatment and her bladder and several adjacent organs were removed. In her new series of works presented in the exhibition “Lovers Grave” at White Cube New York, Tracey Emin focuses on the themes of burial and resurrection—“like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” she explains. These themes touch upon the impact of Emin’s experience battling cancer and the quest for everlasting love. Starting with images from archaeological burial sites, where human remains have been found entangled in an eternal embrace, Emin embarked on her own investigation into lasting love that transcends even death. 

Painting by Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin, You Left Me on the Mountain (2023)
Acrylic on canvas 80 7/8 x110 1/16 in. | (205.5 x 279.5 cm)
© Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2023. Photo © Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy of White Cube

Emin’s exploration of love and resurrection has resulted in a selection of artworks that are certainly very personal, if far less cynical and provocative than her early-career works. The images, as well as the titles of the paintings, seem to be filled with hope, passion, connection, self-love, and a certain calm acceptance: in So much Love – So Much Kissing, That I Love Myself (2023), I WAS RIGHT (2023), And It was Love (2023), we see entwined bodies in the midst of passionate lovemaking, where sex and love become metaphors for healing and life. Yet there is also mention of abandonment, for example in the paintings Yes I miss You (2023), You Left Me on the Mountain (2023) and You Let Me Fall (2023), where we see Emin’s exhausted lonely body lying, curled up or stretched out, surrounded by red. Resurrection, after all, is very often also a solitary affair. 

Dreaming of Another World, painting by Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin, Dreaming of Another World (2022)
Acrylic on canvas 80 7/8 x110 1/16 in. | (205.5 x 279.5 cm)
© Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2023. Photo © Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy of White Cube

Interestingly, Tracey Emin focuses solely on painting in this new body of work. It truly is like a resurrection of the artist who recovered from illness and set out to reconnect with herself and aspects of her creativity, to reinvent herself again while building on her extensive knowledge base and experience. Perhaps the strongest feeling when looking at the artworks in Lovers Grave is the fact that we all need love, intimacy, and connection to help us through the dark days and challenges we face. Emin recognizes this as part of her recovery and also acknowledges that human strength lies in the capacity to experience many emotions at once and to share our vulnerability while never giving up.  

Relevant sources to learn more

Read more articles from Artland Magazine
Explore previous editions of our Female Iconoclasts series:
Sophie Calle
Emily Jacir
Georgia O’Keeffe
Yoko Ono
Shirin Neshat

Other relevant sources:
For more on Lovers Grave, see White Cube New York
Discover works for sale by Tracey Emin on Artland’s marketplace

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