How Tracey Emin’s Emotive Works Became Must-Haves for Collectors
Portrait of Tracey Emin in her London studio, January 2016. Photo by Richard Young. Courtesy of the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
Tracey Emin is at the top of her game and, despite a recent cancer diagnosis and operation, is having a stellar year. In October, she opened “Detail of Love,” a solo exhibition at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels. The following month, a two-artist show featuring her and Edvard Munch, “The Loneliness of the Soul,” opened at London’s Royal Academy of Arts to critical acclaim and public praise; her monumental sculptural work The Mother, which won an international competition for a public art commission in 2018, will be installed outside the new Munch Museum in Oslo later this year, when the exhibition travels there. Also in November, she opened “Living Under the Hunters Moon,” a major solo show at White Cube in London. Emin’s creativity and her market are stronger than ever. But it’s been a long journey that has required her to navigate sexist attitudes and pejorative views of the rawness and emotional expression in her work.
Tracey Emin and the idea of Tracey Emin have been a part of cultural life since I was a teenager. Whether it was watching her storm off a live late-night discussion on the Turner Prize—tearing off her microphone as she said “I want to be free”—or seeing her work at Saatchi Gallery and in the now-legendary exhibition of works from Charles Saatchi’s collection, “Sensation,” she has been a undeniable fixture for more than 20 years now.
Tracey Emin, installation view of “Living Under the Hunters Moon,” 2020–21, at White Cube Mason’s Yard. © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photo © White Cube. Photo by Ollie Hammick. Courtesy of the artist and White Cube.
“Early on in her career is where the art world misunderstood her and labelled her as ‘enfant terrible,’” said Georgina Wimbush, a director at Emin’s longtime gallery, White Cube. “However, the art world and the market have now caught up and acknowledge the impact and value of her place in art history.” Jay Jopling, who founded White Cube, emerged in tandem with the Young British Artists (YBAs) and gave Emin her first solo show in 1993.
Often billed as making work that was “challenging,” “explicit,” “confrontational,” or “attention seeking,” she and her fellow YBAs were celebrities in the United Kingdom. Their apparent hard-partying lifestyles were heavily documented in the tabloids, coverage that was complimented by thrilled, shocked, yet constant critical discourse from the mainstream and art press. Amid a group that included Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Chris Ofili, Sarah Lucas, Marc Quinn, and others, Emin managed to stand out with her frankness and work that addressed feminism in novel ways. In 1999, she was nominated for the Turner Prize alongside Steven Pippin, Jane and Louise Wilson, and Steve McQueen, to whom it was ultimately awarded.
Tracey Emin, installation view of “Detail of Love,” 2020, at Xavier Hufkens. Photo by Allard Bovenberg, Amsterdam. Courtesy of the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.
“Tracey is an iconoclast turned icon,” said her Brussels gallerist Xavier Hufkens. “The notoriety of her early works Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995) and My Bed (1998) stirred nationwide polemics, dividing critics and collectors in two camps from the start. For some, this may have overshadowed or led to misinterpretations of her art.”
Emin’s unflinching takes on sexuality, relationships, and trauma—coupled with her striking looks—drew a retrograde tabloid response to her work in the 1990s. But as the art world evolved in the first decade of the 2000s, so did mainstream views on Emin and her work—and the market followed. Broad social efforts to address the gender pay gap manifested as keen awareness of discrepancies in pricing and auction results between men and all other artists.
“Tracey’s dealings with love, sex, violence, abortion, and loss were long seen as ‘shocking’ or ‘not done,’” said Hufkens. “Changing circumstances and a more inclusive society have undoubtedly contributed to a better comprehension and appreciation of her art. Though her art has never pretended to fit in, it seems like the times are starting to be ready for Tracey’s honesty.”
From provocateur to grande dame
During the 2000s, Emin appeared to mellow slightly. Her work was still unflinchingly frank, but now seemed to be rooted in emotional authenticity. This period coincided with a series of major institutional solo shows, including exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and Munich’s Haus der Kunst, all in 2002 alone. With her success came great wealth, an endorsement for the deeply center-right Tory Party (which she retracted a decade later), membership in the Royal Academy in 2007, and, that same year, representing Great Britain at the Venice Biennale.
That decade also saw Emin’s market flourish, with her often uplifting, much-imitated neon works becoming must-haves for collectors. At the same time, she continued to develop her practice across an ever-broadening range of media, including textiles, watercolors, sculptures, and paintings.
“Collectors are attracted to Tracey’s works because they are brave, and they are honest,” said Wimbush. “She has built and mastered her career in the public eye since the 1980s—collectors have literally grown with her, there is a bond; they have lived the lows and the highs together.”
Wimbush added: “Tracey’s practice is dedicated to exploring a self-portraiture, a quest to dig deeply into the very darkest corners of one’s self, the parts that most of us leave dormant, locked in boxes. She is untouched by what everyone else does around her, and it is this strength of character that demands attention and demands us all to feel and react to the artworks that we stand in front of.”
Tracey Emin, I said I would say goodbye, 2019. Photo by HV-studio. Courtesy of the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.
In July 2014, perhaps Emin’s two most powerful champions traded her most famous work. Saatchi sold the seminal My Bed at Christie’s in London, where it more than doubled its high estimate to sell for £2.5 million ($4.3 million), setting a new auction record for Emin’s work that still holds. The buyer was Jopling.
“My Bed is iconic, not only embodying Emin’s deeply personal, emotional, and biographical practice, but also almost as a piece of YBA history,” said Tessa Lord, head of evening sales of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s. “Its success at auction was undoubtedly an exciting moment. Nevertheless, the depth of her institutional representation, and her expanding collector base, means we should expect continued successes for Tracey Emin’s work at auction.”
Emin amid her precedents
My Bed’s shocking auction result was followed by a series of exhibitions—which, with the current Munch show, is ongoing—that have sought to position Emin within a longer art historical arc than the YBAs’ 1990s disruptions. In 2015, Vienna’s Leopold Museum paired Emin with the similarly frank and autobiographical work of one of her favorite artists, Egon Schiele; the same year, at Tate Britain, the record-setting My Bed went on display alongside six drawings by Emin and two Francis Bacon paintings she’d handpicked. In 2016, she exhibited alongside works by William Blake at Tate Liverpool, and in 2017, My Bed was shown with works by J.M.W. Turner at Turner Contemporary in Margate on the English south coast (where Emin grew up and has a studio).
“Context can be important in art, especially for Tracey, whose art is characterized by its autobiographical subject matter,” Hufkens said of this series of exhibitions. “Whereas her art has long been misunderstood, her institutional shows have allowed for a different framework. By revisiting her art and presenting it in a different (art historical) context, new perspectives are created. This, in turn, has led to new interest, both by collectors and curators in equal measure.”
Tracey Emin, This Was The Beginning, 2020. © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photo © White Cube. Photo by Theo Christelis. Courtesy of the artist and White Cube.
Lord echoed Hufkens’s assessement, saying she has seen the impact of these exhibitions at auction, including during Christie’s sale of works from the collection of late pop star George Michael in 2019, which featured some very personal works by Emin, a longtime friend. Among them were George Loves Kenny (2007), a neon Emin made after going on tour with Michael—its title references his partner of many years, the collector Kenny Goss—which sold for more than five times its high estimate, bringing in £347,250 ($457,000); and the large abstract canvas Hurricane (2007), which more than doubled its high estimate to sell for £431,250 ($568,000), good for Emin’s sixth-highest auction result to date.
“Over the past few years, what has been most noticeable is not only the U.K. shows but also those further afield, which would almost certainly broaden a collector base,” Lord said. And while the shows pairing her work with art historical predecessors “have helped further to contextualize Emin’s work within a broader legacy,” Lord added that “there have also been individual shows which perhaps shed a new light on a particular element of her practice.” She cited, for instance, a show that opened at MOCA North Miami in 2013 and was devoted entirely to Emin’s work in neon. Her text-based neon works now account for eight of her top 20 auction results.
A star who still shines bright
Autobiographical installations and textile works account for Emin’s top five auction results, and her editioned neons and prints trade hands in great numbers, but her paintings bring in the biggest prices on the primary market. At the online edition of Frieze London in October, Xavier Hufkens sold one of her paintings for $420,000, and during Art Basel in Basel’s virtual edition in June of last year, Hufkens and White Cube both sold canvases of hers for $490,000. Her neon works have traded hands at fairs for figures between $60,000 and $85,000 in the past year, and at Frieze New York’s virtual edition last spring, Hufkens sold one of her drawings for $30,000.
“In large part [the appeal of her work to collectors] is her commitment to using life experience as a constant inspiration to her various creative outlets,” Lord said. “In the great art podcast Talk Art, hosted by Robert Diament and Russell Tovey, she described herself as an ‘out and out expressionist’ who ‘wears her heart on her sleeve,’ and I think that comes together to produce very powerful and brave works which speak to people in a very intimate way.”
Emin, despite being fully immersed in the art world, still goes against what she disagrees with, even if that means speaking out against art flippers. At 57, her career continues going from strength to strength.
“In terms of the art market, Tracey has unapologetically criticized, fought, and expressed herself through an art world fraught with obstacles and barriers, especially for female artists who demand to be seen as equal with their male counterparts,” Wimbush said. “Tracey is a leader and where she leads, others follow.”