Tracey Emin On Storytelling, Longevity and Building Her Legacy

“All of this tells me a story; things I don’t even know about myself.”

Tracey Emin is a bit of a bad girl in the art world. Her confessional artwork feels like a soundtrack to the 1990s; parts Courtney Love, Fiona Apple, Sarah MacLachlan and maybe even snippets of Zadie Smith, Janeane Garofalo or Sandra Bernhardt.

A woman in black poses in front of a painting
Tracey Emin. Photo by Nadja Sayej for Observer

I mention comedians because Emin’s emotionally raw artworks are riddled with drama that often overrules her humor, but she’s incredibly funny, too—a side of on display at a recent gallery talk.

She was at White Cube New York to discuss her latest exhibition “Tracey Emin: Lovers Grave,” which features her drippy, raw paintings of naked lovers who hold each other in tight embraces, in hues of red, black, cobalt blue and white.

SEE ALSO: Newly Appointed British Museum Trustee Tracey Emin Is Making History

Emin, who was wearing the art world uniform of all black and surrounded by her work, said the paintings are about eternal love—tracing back to vintage photos of archaeological burial sites, where human remains have been entombed clutching each another.

“I really believe in an afterlife, I really believe in other worlds and other spirits, and I look for it in my work and enjoy it,” she explained. “Love is great; you dig the hole, you put the body in and the soul on top, you put the gravestone in and you walk away,” making it all sound like a metaphor for modern love, too.

It’s her first exhibition in New York City in roughly eight years, and the works on view were all made in 2022 and 2023. The pieces range from messy portraits of couples, like There was blood from 2022, a potent red painting of what seems to be a couple kissing in bed, to a chilly painting called I went home, which depicts a woman lying alone in an iceberg-like white cube. They all feel utterly personal and diaristic, much in line with her whole emotionally charged art career.

A painting of a nude woman reclining
‘I went home’, 2023, Acrylic on canvas, 205.5 x 279.5 cm| 80 7/8 x 110 1/16 in. Courtesy White Cube

“I want to see a painting I’ve never seen before and feel something I never have felt before, either,” Emin said. “All of this tells me a story; things I don’t even know about myself.”

The paintings most akin to the archeological graves she references are the small ones, which feel like studies for the larger ones. They include It hurt like death, from 2023, which looks like a mummified woman surrounded by a messy shadow, and another called Burial Ground, 2022, which calls to mind a seated marble statue in a cloudy dream.

Emin, a bladder cancer survivor, talked about her own brush with death, right before she had surgery to remove her bladder in 2020. “The night before my surgery, we were going through my will, and I realized that everything goes to my foundation because I don’t have a partner or children,” recalls Emin.

A brightly lit white gallery space with three red-hued paintings
Installation view of “Tracey Emin: Lovers Grave” at White Cube, New York. Photo by

“I thought what happens, what is my life about?” she asked. “When I went under for surgery, the last thing I thought was ‘Bloody hell, I don’t want to be remembered as someone who was a quite interesting artist in the 1990s.’ If I get through this to the other side, I will do this.”

It led her to founding her own art school and art residency program, which she runs in the small town of Margate, England (where she grew up). Her next artist residency begins in February of 2025—one tip she teaches artists is “You don’t sell your work, swap your work.”

She talked about the influence of artist Louise Bourgeois, who was “so inspiring to me,” said Emin. “I met her when she was 89.”

“She made small things, big things, she did whatever she wanted. That was inspiring to me, that you have that level of ambition within your work—I don’t mean ambition to make money, but the work.”

A painting of a nude woman
‘Yes I miss You’, 2023, Acrylic on canvas, 205.5 x 279.5 cm| 80 7/8 x 110 1/16 in. Courtesy White Cube

White Cube, a gallery founded in London in 1993 by gallerist Jay Jopling, has been with Emin all along. “I’m so lucky to work with a gallery that has put up with me for so long,” said Emin. “I thought, wow, we’ve been working together for 30 years; my god, we will be dead in 30 years.”

“Then I thought, no, we’ll be 90,” she adds. “The good ol’ New York years. Lots of gallerists and artists live to be 99.”

Tracey Emin On Storytelling, Longevity and Building Her Legacy