Of the many hot-ticket events held last December at Ian Schrager’s Miami Beach Edition — unveiled just in time for the circus that surrounds Art Basel Miami Beach — a cunning cocktail party was thrown by Lehmann Maupin gallery in a luxury suite with a stunning ocean view. Amid the art world A-listers sipping Champagne and discussing the art on view, Tracey Emin stood side by side with a friend studying the image the two women made in the mirror they were facing.
Catching a glimpse of Emin — an artist renowned for exposing her emotions, her neuroses, her bedclothes, her naked body — in such an unabashedly adolescent pose caused a few guests to wonder if she weren’t staging an impromptu performance. But Emin was merely checking herself out at a party, an act in which many women engage by sneaking a look in nearby reflective glass or holding up the line for the loo. In Emin’s world there’s no reason to hide the truth of one’s stray social panic or to be embarrassed by the idea of dwelling on it, which makes her world seem like a pretty free place to be.
The studio space in which Tracey Emin created Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Madeover three weeks in 1996.
‘Tracey is not ironic, she’s genuine,’ says her longtime dealer David Maupin. ‘She holds a mirror up to herself and her audience, and that kind of sincerity is difficult to pull off as an artist.’
Emin was a breakout member of the group of British artists known as the YBA who emerged in the 1990s, whose bold work focused on identity politics seemingly offered with a shocking dose of sexuality, a healthy serving of narcissism, and for the most successful of the lot, including Damien Hirst, a dollop of solipsism. When the work was new, and the artists were flaunting the verve of their youthful thirties, its contemporaneity was undeniable, but its longevity had yet to be proved.
Twenty years later the lens of perspective adds layers of meaning to the group’s undaunted antics, read by many as gimmickry and self-promotion. ‘Self marketing seemed a necessary evil to artists of the Nineties, especially after the 1980s art boom brought forth the idea of the contemporary art star,’ says curator Alexandra Schwartz, whose own examination of art of the era, Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s, is on view through May 17 at the Montclair Art Museum. ‘The marketing apparatus put in place by the art world didn’t really give them any other choice.’
‘Her work is about the emotions people experience in all aspects of their lives’
Emin’s work was easily caught in the criticism that use of identity politics was itself a veil for advancing personal agendas. ‘Tracey’s work dovetails with the ongoing feminist dialogue of the Nineties,’ continues Schwartz, ‘and like Naomi Wolf, she was criticised for using raw sexuality to make points about the female experience. But Tracey doesn’t really have a political agenda.’
‘Her work is about the emotions people experience in all aspects of their lives,’ says Maupin. ‘It often starts out as autobiographical, but the ideas behind the pieces turn universal very quickly.’
Such is the case with Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made, a groundbreaking conceptual piece incorporating all the components of the artist’s 1996 show-cum-performance at Stockholm’s Galleri Andreas Brändström. The artist reengaged with painting and drawing after a six-year hiatus by creating an enclosed room within the gallery fitted with lenses for the public to watch Emin make art over a three-week period. Not only does the finished piece include the 12 paintings, 79 works on paper, and seven paintings she created with her own body, a la Yves Klein, that she created during the course of the show, but also seven letters she wrote, art supplies, furniture, CDs, and the flotsam of life in the studio. The piece goes on the block as part of the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s London on February 11.
One of seven body paintings, two of 12 paintings and three of 79 works on paper included in the work.
‘The title makes reference to the last painting I made in 1990,’ says the artist. ‘I felt at the time, that in doing the Exorcism…, I was regaining my faith in painting and in art.’ Both Maupin and Katharine Arnold, the house’s Head of Evening Auction for the Post-War & Contemporary Art department in London, believe the piece to be a springboard for Emin’s mature work. ‘Painting and drawing are at the centre of Tracey’s current practice,’ says Arnold. ‘Her foundation certainly began with the YBA and the way the group pushed the boundaries of art making. But they’ve all grown and their directions have changed. Tracey has the power to shock, but she also has real skill as a painter.’
To showcase the components of Exorcism… beyond its original installation format, Christie’s hung the individual pieces salon style for the pre-sale gallery view. ‘I am really excited to see the work shown for the first time, not as an installation, but individually framed, hanging together with dignity,’ says the artist. It’s also a preview for would-be collectors as the piece comes with the caveat that a private individual may hang as few or as many works in his or her home, but if the piece is lent to an institution for public view, it must be shown in its entirety in the original installation format.
Three of 12 paintings included in the work.
In the artist’s catalogue, Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made immediately predates her My Bed, 1998, the dirty mattress covered with condoms and stained pants which earned the artist her place on the Turner Prize short list of 1999. That piece, now on long-term loan to the Tate, brought £2.5 million at Christie’s London last July. Exorcism… is estimated to fetch £600,000 to £800,000, although the significance of the work to the artist’s oeuvre adds perspective to the value. ‘It’s really in her sweet spot,’ says Arnold.
‘Tracey is really a poet,’ says David Maupin. ‘When an artist taps into both personal emotions and the universal sense of those same emotions, that’s when she’s in sync with the world.’