‘Deeper Meanings Tend to Slip In’: Sarah Lucas, Edgy Feminist Id of the YBA Generation, on Her Fearless New Museum Survey

"It was a bloody amazing time and we were all absolutely high on it," Lucas says of the YBA generation.

Sarah Lucas, Got a Salmon On #3 (1997). © Sarah Lucas. Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London.
The sculptures in Sarah Lucas’s retrospective at the New Museum often swap out everyday domestic objects for intimate human body parts—fried eggs for breasts, stuffed nylon stockings for legs, a cucumber for, well, you get the picture. These works “take a demonstrative stance against puritanism, conformism, and misogyny with distinct irreverence and wit,” writes Lisa Phillips, the New Museum’s director, in the catalogue for the show.
“Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel,” which opened this week, is one of the most buzzed about shows of the fall. It’s also the largest-ever presentation of work by the former YBA, with nearly 200 pieces—including photography, sculpture, and installation—spanning three floors. It’s a major landmark for the artist, but one she tackled boldly, improvising and creating new work up until the last minute.

artnet News sat down with the artist on the day of the show’s opening to talk about the emotional side of staging a career retrospective, her free-spirited work habits, and why the current political moment is such a fitting time for this show.

Sarah Lucas, Bunny Gets Snookered #8 (1997). ©Sarah Lucas. Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London.

New York Times art critic Roberta Smith recently wrote that it took New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni roughly a dozen years to convince you to do this retrospective. Why the hesitation?

I’m always a bit wary of doing big things. I feel more comfortable just doing my own thing. I had a retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery a few years ago, and then I was offered the [British Pavilion at] Venice Biennale. There’s only a certain amount of really big things you can do at once. It’s kind of exhausting, and emotionally exhausting as well. Massimiliano and I had been getting to know each other over the course of this time and a couple of years after that we did another project in Milan for the Milan art fair. And one day I just said, “OK, yes, I can do it now. I’m ready.”

I’m glad [the New Museum show] is happening now. Because if I had done it immediately after the Whitechapel show it would have seemed very similar, and it’s actually very different, partly because there’s lots of work that wasn’t made then. It also just feels like a very good moment for it.

“Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel,” 2018. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

“Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel,” 2018. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio


Do you mean because of all the issues we’re currently grappling with, like those related to the #MeToo movement?

I think probably. It’s this feeling that I’m getting from other people, the excitement around it strikes me. I don’t quite understand it, it’s this external stuff that you can’t really grasp, but I can just feel it.

What do you hope that audiences will take away from this show, particularly US viewers who may be less familiar with your work?

The amazing thing is, in some ways, things first really kicked off for me here [in New York]. Even though my first one-person shows were in London, I spent six months here just before that and it had a big influence on my outlook. There wasn’t much of a contemporary art scene, it had not really gotten going in London in 1990 yet. And yet, I’ve done very few shows here and that means that most people haven’t really been able to join up the dots of what I do, so to have the opportunity to see so much at once is really fantastic. I suppose I hope that people are able to just get the whole picture, which is what it is. Some of these works I haven’t seen in years so it’s like a walk down memory lane for me. That’s what I mean about retrospectives being emotional.

Sarah Lucas, <i>Vox Pop Doris</i> (2018). Photo by Eileen Kinsella

Sarah Lucas, Vox Pop Doris (2018). Photo by Eileen Kinsella.

Which works in the show have never been seen before?

The boots in the lobby are brand new—hot off the press—and the car piece for the top floor [a bisected car with car seats made of cigarettes titled This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven]. That was because we couldn’t get any of the car pieces that currently exist into the elevator. I told them, “Don’t worry, I’ll make another one and we’ll cut it in half.” I’m really pleased with it.

It came to me while listening to the Pixies song “Monkey Gone to Heaven” while I was working on the car piece at Matthew Barney’s studio. We were just listening to all types of American music while working from morning until evening. It was a really great prelude to actually coming and doing the show. I normally do that when I’m preparing for a show: I make certain elements in the place where the show will be, partly because I don’t really have a studio.

Sarah Lucas, Christ You Know It Aint' Easy (2003) ©Sarah Lucas. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Sarah Lucas, Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy (2003). ©Sarah Lucas. Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Why don’t you have a studio?

Working elsewhere allows me to get in the mood of a place and also to hang out with friends. It makes me feel like I’m really here rather than just sending all the work over.

It seems like you tend to go with your instincts a lot of the time. Would you agree with that?

It’s really just serendipity most of the time. I think often deeper meanings tend to slip in—more in a Freudian slip sort of way. I’m always in a cloud of emotions and reading a lot, but I don’t directly try to put that into things. It’s more that there is a cloud of awareness. Different people might pick up different things according to their own cloud.

Installation view of Sarah Lucas <i>This Jaguar's Gone to Heaven</i> (2018) at the New Museum. <br>Photo by Eileen Kinsella

Installation view of Sarah Lucas This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven (2018) at the New Museum.
Photo by Eileen Kinsella.

What are you reading now?

Inasmuch as I’ve had an opportunity to read recently, The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, who also wrote an essay for the catalogue. I’ve read some of her other books as well, Bluets, and The Red Parts.

What does it mean to your work and to your career even now to have been part of the original YBA group?

You can’t take any of that out of it. It was a bloody amazing time and we were all absolutely high on it. It’s only now that you can begin to get any distance and look at the sort of revolution it caused in London, in the art scene anyway. All these other things that have come along with that time, like Tate Modern, it was like this big powerful explosion. I think it was possible because there were so many of us. It started off with just a whole bunch of kids making art and going to each others’ shows and trying to put on bigger and bigger shows. We were also our own audience and it kept the whole thing really buoyant. It’s only after a couple of decades go by that you look back and think: wow! And how much that changed everything.

Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel” is on view at the New Museum through January 20, 2019.

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