Tracey Emin returns to New York City with her first solo showcase in almost eight years, presented at the White Cube New York gallery opening night press preview on November 2, 2023. The “Lovers Grave” collection expresses Emin’s emotional history and journey of healing, love, and coming to terms with oneself through contemporary painting. Inspired by the concept of “live together, die together, go to heaven together,” Emin marvels at the wonder of passionate relationships and the overwhelming flow of love between two persons within them.
Acclaimed painter Tracey Emin is anything but conventional. Full of life, laughter, witty quips, and vivacious attitude, the esteemed artist speaks to the art world and her audience as if they were her closest friends. Her artistic educational institution and art residency program are built upon her notion of “ideas, communication, and sharing art,” and her gallery opening at White Cube New York feels no different in that regard. Emin speaks openly about her new exhibit and the “Lovers Grave” theme, reminiscent of the iconic archaeological discovery of an intertwined couple excavated amidst the ruins of Pompeii’s fiery eruption. Four years before the pandemic, Emin created a wild painting in the middle of the night – a couple ensconced in each other’s arms in a coffin shape on a white canvas. The concept reminded her of a lover’s grave such as in Pompeii, and inspired this latest showcase. As Emin says, “the next thing I knew, I was thinking how amazing it would be to love this much.
I hadn’t been in a relationship for ten years…in the end, I painted over it [the original rendering] and turned it into this wild and amazing painting that I truly loved.” She built these passionate emotions with a backbone of the idea that she “wanted you to fuck me so much that I couldn’t paint anymore” when passion overtakes project. The artist later fell in love after this initial painting, but kept being reminded of this lover’s grave concept; it became a majorly positive trend in her mind. “Live together, die together, go to heaven together” – this is what Emin wanted to portray in her art.
At the same time as this connected love blossomed, the artist received news that turned her life upside down: she was stricken with a rapidly spreading cancer diagnosis, and life as she knew it was about to end. However, Emin muses that this same great love “pulled her out of the grave” and felt eternal. “Physical touch and the feeling of being held elevated me, and pulled me out of my own grave,” the artist shared in a sentiment relating meaningfully to the series of Lovers Grave paintings now on display at the White Cube.
Tracey Emin’s work has been applauded internationally and the artist has risen to fame and earned multiple accolades for her touching, provocative, and emotional works in various mediums throughout the years. Her body of work and style work through her anxieties about painting – “feeling naked and painting naked” are meaningful to Emin, as evidenced from her prior 3.5 week-period in Stockholm where she notoriously painted entirely in the nude for its duration. However, Emin admonishes that her work is not about sex – instead, she aims for discourse on making oneself uncomfortable and facing internal reckonings in a most natural, vulnerable state. She never knows herself how a final work will decidedly turn out in composition – she likens the experience of painting to transcending and looking down upon herself as she works. Painting titles are also very important personally to her, though Emin shyly admits she doesn’t always remember what each work was named, out of the millions of titles she’s assigned.
Her titles always tell the story of her and her life, and make sense in some way, but she impresses upon us that “it’s not a series of work – it’s not like ‘this is the red series!’ These are just the paintings that I’ve done that fit in with Lovers Grave” for example. Emin also often listens to classical music as she works, as she admits that music with lyrics can bring her too far inside of her head or influence her works subliminally. She also loves dancing - she reminisces that she used to stay up all night, enjoying a drink and dancing as she worked. Now in her sober era, she has evolved to be much more calm, and is a fan of her tranquil “Relaxing Piano Music” playlist.
Through titles and elsewise, a small piece of Emin’s backstory and own self are immediately present in each work, and there are certainly many of the artist’s own stories to tell through her impressive experiences and occasionally difficult times. For example, she shared with us that in a previous period, she was pregnant for four months. She then had an abortion, resulting in a feeling that her life was moving too quickly and overwhelming for her to reckon with. Rather than drowning in her own breakneck daily life, Emin became reclusive for a time. She wrote and learned remotely, rather than creating art. She entirely stopped painting for a full two years – “after this, I felt like there was no room for me in the world of art or in the nineties’ world of art, so I studied philosophy for two years” Emin recalls, before she edged back slowly into the world of art via landscapes and animal studies (far different from her current styles.)
Now feeling inspired after moving emotionally past these darker times, Emin beams as she muses on coming back to New York City with her first solo exhibition after almost eight years. She recounts reconnecting with White Cube gallery owner Jeremy Michael “Jay” Jopling, an old friend of hers. Emin explains, “Jay said, ‘I’ve got a space, and I’ve got it for you” about the White Cube, resulting in this current “Lovers Grave” showcase. After approximately thirty years of friendship, the two art industry giants still “understand, love, and work with each other after all these years in a supportive partnership of growth,” as Emin puts it. To her, these loving relationships are the key to growth and personal fulfillment. The artist recounts the story of how the night before her major surgery treatment, she was pondering upon the fact that she didn’t have a partner, children, or anyone close to her at the time. She thought: “well, what happens to me? What was my life about?” Emin distinctly recalls adamantly thinking, “oh hell, I don’t want to be remembered as a ‘quite interesting artist from the nineties” as she went under the knife.
Today, Tracey Emin is recognized not only as a quite interesting artist from the 1990s, but as a force to be reckoned with in the art world today for her provocative work and meaningful storytelling. She also champions art in a uniquely philanthropic way through her residency program; not one of the talented instructors that Emin employs gets paid for teaching the course, for example. Each teacher instead receives a watercolor piece from Emin herself at the end of the course as a sign of her gratitude for their act of service, and their dedication to inspiring emerging artists by bolstering their skills and work for the next generation. As for herself, Emin feels confident in her future, and rightfully so. “People ask me: ‘Oh my god Tracey, how could you have done so much in the last three years? It’s because I don’t drink anymore…I’ve got much more time. I’m just working hard, and doing and loving what I do. I’ve got a good future to look forward to [compared to past hardships] – it’s not negative, it’s positive.” She implores, “for me, coming out from all of this, it doesn’t matter how low or how sad you feel… Every time I come to New York, I cry. Every single time… I really appreciate everything happening, it’s good, it’s exciting, and I have lots to work towards.” The artist currently has multiple new showcases that are coming soon, and cheekily tells that there’s too many of these new projects to even speak on, when pressed for details.
If her rousing applause and brilliant reception at the White Cube New York for “Lovers Grave” are any indication, Emin certainly has a rewarding period of her career ahead of her for those new exhibitions. Guests at the opening of “Lovers Grave” were abuzz with kind words and thought-provoking conversations between each other while drinking in each unique work on display. Cuisine and coffee from the much-loved Sant Ambroeus catering in New York City provided a perfect accompaniment for the morning gallery perusal, and felt like a slow step away from the bustling city lifestyle for a moment of calm collection. An audience favorite work was Emin’s crimson and teal large scale And It was Love piece, displayed prominently by the entrance of the exhibit. One gallery-goer commented that all of her senses were employed on her walkthrough, from enjoying light bites to inhaling the nostalgic scent of paint that could be discerned when examining a piece up close.
Out of all the titles in the “Lovers Grave” gallery show, a personal favorite painting Tracey Emin herself would add to her own home – a sacred space for creating and enjoying life – is a small blue work in an upper level room titled Just Fuck You. The artist admits that she also kept one work from this collection for herself, currently hanging in her home. She shares in an abashed tone that she very much almost kept both of these two for herself, but decided to include Just Fuck You at the White Cube exhibit in the end. Perhaps surprisingly for a painter, Emin provides insight that she doesn’t have much art on display in her home. She believes that her home paintings are hers alone, and any painting that would hang in her home would never be sold as it’s such a personal work – “I don’t want to spoil myself just because I made it,” she states, and similar to any collector of fine art, the piece would have to speak to her deeply personally in order to make the cut for display in a sacred and equally personal space. Emin frets that she has too much going on in her head at any given time while creating art, and she adamantly declares she would never want to form too heavy an attachment to any prior styles by surrounding herself overly immersively with them. Instead, the painter looks to the future of her work and aims to continually move forward with fresh inspirations.
We can safely expect plenty of exciting concepts and fresh gallery work from Tracey Emin in the coming months and years, from the artist’s hints about her busy schedule with major projects currently in the works. Emin always brings a unique perspective on contemporary art through her own lens, immersing a viewer into her world and masterfully combining a reflection of both self and other into a single contemplative work. Her pieces are rightfully sought after within the art world, and her own vivacious demeanor and thoughtful yet cheerful outlook on a renewed life serve to inspire and motivate any who are blessed to hold a conversation with her or witness the artist in action. “Lovers Grave” will be on display at the White Cube New York until January 13, 2024, and is well-worth a long walk through Emin’s uniquely crafted universe of sheer love, entanglement, trial, and tribulation through contemporary art. Although Tracey Emin herself may cry without fail every time she comes to New York, the city is proud to host such an influential artist and add her striking narratives to its creative landscape again after the better part of a decade.
Writer: Laur Weeks @laur.weeks
Artist: Tracey Emin @traceyeminstudio
In conversation with: Susan May, Global Artistic Director – White Cube New York
Images: Courtesy of Third Eye
PR: Third Eye @hellothirdeye
Gallery: White Cube New York @whitecube
Catering: Sant Ambroeus @santambroeus