I can’t remember when I first saw Sarah Lucas’s 1996 photo Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, which depicts the British artist in a t-shirt and jeans, legs spread in a chair, with two crispy, sunny side up eggs sitting on her chest to suggest breasts, but I’ve never forgotten it. Lucas, staring directly into the camera, is so serious, and her pose so uncompromisingly macho, and yet the eggs confuse the entire set-up. When women have for so long only existed in art, valued solely for their bodies and their breasts as sensual inspiration to the men who depict them, Lucas’s portrait radically demands the viewer confront her totality: she is a woman attracting your gaze, but only on her own, comic terms. You want breasts? She’ll give you breasts.
Much of Lucas’s work possesses this demanding, provocative spirit. From the lurid tabloid photos of women’s bodies she first displayed at her 1992 solo show charmingly titled Penis Nailed to a Board, to her plaster penises mounted on wood like Brancusi sculptures, or the surprisingly sensual “Bunny” bodies made of tights and stockings, Lucas not only depicts the human body in unconventional, tantalizing forms, but also questions how we consume and desire them. The artist first made a name for herself in the art world at Goldsmiths University, where she became a member of the loose coalition known as the Y.B.A.s (Young British Artists) which included artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. The group was known for their scrappy sensibility and affinity for found objects, but Lucas might be the most DIY of them all, working without a studio and an unpretentious appreciation for found object.
Having only known her as the cool, confrontational artist in photos, I suspected Lucas, 55, would be tough in person. But when I meet her at the New Museum where she’s currently installing over 150 works for her first ever U.S. retrospective open September 26, Au Naturel, she is cool as a cucumber, albeit frazzled by the installation (she’s currently figuring out the best placement for a set of gigantic concrete boots in the museum’s lobby.) Just last week, she invited a group of women (and men in drag or dressed as giant phalluses) to the New Museum to help her create One Thousand Eggs: For Women, in which women throw precisely 1,000 eggs at a wall to create a gooey, yellow painting. “Women, we’ve got eggs, but they’re limited,” she tells me over lunch. “It’s a different thing to be a bloke... your seed isn’t limited. You can produce more and more of it, you can spill any amount of it around, if you’re just having a wank, and it doesn’t cut off.”
“And it’s quite nice to have a little dig at men sometimes,” she adds.
Here, in a condensed and edited conversation, Lucas and I talk about her upcoming retrospection, the inevitable autobiography of art, and eggs, eggs, and more eggs.
Why do you think it’s taken so long to have your first survey show in the US?
To tell you the truth my shows in America, mainly in New York, have been few and far between anyway, just because I don’t make that much stuff. At the New Museum, they’ve been asking me for years, but I wasn’t ready to do it. I’ve never been that mad keen about these very big shows at institutions.
Because it’s quite a funny thing to have your head back in all that stuff from the past. It takes a lot of work but at the same time, it’s not making anything new. I tend to be more comfortable doing quite smaller things. So they’d been asking me for a long time and because I already had a big retrospective in London, I didn’t feel like doing another one that quickly. It’s not exactly laziness but it’s a sort of wariness.
Do you not particularly like going back into your past work?
It’s not that I mind but it’s a weird thing. You start thinking, oh god, maybe this is going to be my swan song or something. There’s something about the whole thing of it being a retrospective…
It sort of demarcates your career.
Yeah, and you want to feel, at the time that you’re doing it, that you’re really excited about other things in the future, so that you’re not feeling like it’s all about something that’s over.
When I look at your body of work, it’s always been very cohesive. There are periods to your work but you come back to the same images, like the pantyhose and the eggs. I’m curious as to why you think you come back to the same themes so often.
I suppose it’s just a vocabulary really. When I did the last [show] it was Venice [Biennale] actually, I thought to myself, well what do people want to see anymore? What do people want from me? One of my friends Mike Clark said, they just want to see a Sarah Lucas show. And I think people do want to see a Sarah Lucas show. I want things to be fresh but at the same time, I don’t want it to be so fresh that it’s unrecognizable.
When was the first moment where you realized people know my work, people know my name?
I’m sort of recognizable in art situations but I don’t find I get recognized in other situations. I don’t focus on that mostly, only when I actually have to because I have an opening or something, otherwise, I don’t think about it too much. The breakthrough piece for me from being completely unknown was in the early ’90s with Two Fried Eggs and Kebab. That was the first time I used eggs and I’ve used them pretty consistently since. I never knew then that I was going to use eggs but you never know what things are going to become. Some things just stick more than other things. People know me for certain things but it’s not because they’re the only things I do, it’s because they’re the things they remember, or that strike them.
What is it about the eggs that you keep coming back to?
There’s lots of things about it I suppose. It’s a real thing. I like using real things, same thing with cigarettes. It’s sort of like you’re inventing your own materials to a certain extent, [because] even if those things exist they’re not generally speaking used as materials. And I’m working at home a lot, I’m not a very studio-ish person, I just mix it up with the rest of my domestic life. So, they’re the kind of things that tend to be around.
When you call an egg a “real thing,” what do you mean?
I mean a real thing because paint in a way isn’t a real thing. It is—it’s really paint—but it’s not a real thing with its own life. An egg is such a real thing because it’s actually an enormous potential for life. And cigarettes are a real thing, and they’re a potential for death.
You like to make artwork quickly, off the cuff too.
Yeah, partly because I’m up for making things in a situation where they’re going to be shown or in a foreign country where I’m going there to make work. I love making work in other places because it changes the work. It gives you a way of engaging with the space, with people. It’s an alternative to tourism, I suppose.
I do that a lot but that does really restrict you in terms of time, so there’s usually a lot of serendipity and having to rethink your ideas because things aren’t what you expected them to be. Even things like tights can vary quite a bit from one country to another. You think that’s something’s ubiquitous but it isn’t necessarily, and that changes the work quite usefully. You find that the thing you weren’t looking for is often better than what you were looking for.
I’ve found often that the spontaneous things are the things I prefer. I like to do things quite fast, anyway, because I’m very impatient by nature. I think you can’t choose your own temperament. If you’re not like that, you’re not like that.
You don’t want to overthink it.
Yeah, the thinking is quite key. I am actually quite a thinking person but that’s the part of me I like to get relief from. Making things can be a relief overthinking. I like to get on with things.
In the early days, I used to say about making something: I want to make something now. I don’t want to go down the road to the shop and try to look for a certain material, I’ll just do it with whatever I’ve got. And if I think I can make it better afterward then I’ll go and find the things but I always find that I end up accepting the thing I made in the first place. Or, even if I did go and make it with “better” things, I wouldn’t prefer it.
With pieces like the Bunnies, or the pieces where you’re using tights for example, did your ideas precede the materials or come once you started using them?
I never envisioned the Bunnies. I was actually trying to make something else with the tights at the time. I said, I know what I’ll do, I’ll make the tortoise and the hare. And once I started stuffing and putting wire in them it struck me how much they looked like a person’s legs they were. Then I never finished making that piece because it was a really stupid idea, but I kept the bits that looked like the legs and stuck them on a shelf and thought I’d come back to it.
Later on, I did come back to it and started to make them look more like a pair of legs. I just hung them on the back of a chair so I could have a look at how it was going and then I saw them on the chair and thought, bloody hell, something’s here.
I like a surprise. I don’t want to know exactly what I’m doing or sort of torture the material into doing it or something.
You once said you like to make work for the broadest possible audience, not academics or intellectuals, but people who might never go to a gallery. Why was that always important?
I grew up in an environment where nobody knew anything about contemporary art. Or if they did know anything about it they thought it was a bloody load of rubbish. I like to convince those people. I think you can actually make things that people get on an almost instinctive level and they don’t have to be that interested in art to get something from it.
Because a lot of your work has an inviting sense of humor. What place does humor have in art for you?
I read a good thing about humor recently, that it’s the manifestation of freedom. I think it is. It’s all in the slips of meaning or things that can’t kind of be articulated very easily because then it would ruin it. Humor is an instinctive, emotional response rather than an only thinking response.
I think about a work like Au Naturel, that’s the kind of work that draws everyone in.
Because everyone gets it. Why is genitalia funny?
Why do you come back so often to genitalia, to penises?
You’ve got to hone in on something. It’s easy because everyone thinks it’s meaningful. It’s got to be kind of ticklish thing. It’s universal.
When you’re making a cast of someone, or someone’s penis, it’s a very intimate process. What does that relationship feel like, to render someone’s body into a work of your own?
In the case of penises, I’ve only ever used them of my actual boyfriend. It’s intimate but I’m also making them in an intimate situation. In the case of the plaster sculptures, the muses I did for Venice, they’re my female friends and that’s quite intimate too but they’re my friends. It’s brilliant fun doing these things with people. It can be a pit of a pain sometimes, physically, to hold a pose, but I don’t think anyone ever has a bad experience of it.
It’s collaborative in a sense.
Yeah, and I like to collaborate. Everyone’s life is necessarily collaborative, but people don’t think about it much. To me, that collaborative process is a part of what the object is. It’s all in there.
A lot of my friends are, in their different ways, quite collaborative people by nature. I’ve always been keen to make and be in a community of interesting people. That, in a way, is possibly more important to me than art, but they happen to go together.
You’re in your work a lot, in front of the camera. Was that something that always came comfortably to you?
Oh, absolutely not. Actually I never really intended to be in it. It wasn’t about promoting me, it’s just that I happened to be the only person there originally. And I didn’t really expect those things to have the power or the resonance with other people when I first did them and then they did. Actually, for a long time, I stopped making pictures of myself because it seemed to suddenly be like I’d have to be doing something really contrived to continue with it and it was never about that.
When I was younger, I used to think I was quite determined to be very objective. Making art is a very objective thing, because you’re making an object and you can stand back and look at it and walk around it and project thoughts onto it. I used to think, well, so you can be a better person in the art maybe than you actually are yourself, for instance.
This is the other thing about doing retrospectives, looking back, just in a slippage sort of way, [the work] is more autobiographical than you think. I definitely didn’t set out for that but I think that’s inevitable of what you do. For writers especially, I suspect. When you write this article it might be saying more about yourself than me probably.
I read an interview with you a long time ago, you were talking about your photo Eating a Banana, and about how you felt like your appearance would work as a disadvantage to your art.
I didn’t think I was the kind of thing people wanted to be looking at in particular, no. I just thought I’d do it anyway. Even thinking about the contact sheet I would have had back then, now I can look at all those pictures and think, actually they’re all good. But at the time, the classic one stood out to me, and I thought that’s really got something. It’s a bit like a revelation because you’re not even sure why it works, really.
Do you ever doubt yourself when you have those revelations?
I don’t doubt myself when I’m having a revelation, but I have tremendous doubts when I’m not having them. I can be quite up and downy.
Do you remember the first time you had one? A kind of revelation with something you were making?
I did a foundation course for a year at the London College of Printing. During that summer vacation, I thought I’m going to try and make something that really is an artwork, that’s kind of objective. I didn’t have any resources or anything. I set myself up with a pad of paper and a pencil and I thought I’d do a map of London from memory. It got bigger and bigger and I kept tearing off bits and paper because I got things in the wrong places and had to stick it over there. It wasn’t trying to look like an organized map it was just lines and scrawled, and obviously, my knowledge of London was dense in some places and nothing at all in others.
That was the first time I felt that. I think I was sort of taken possession by it. It just started happening to me; it took me over. And actually, it was this real meaningful thing even if it was just what I knew.
Do you remember when you first got a sense of what you wanted to make as an artist?
When I left college, I found myself trying to make things at home, filling up the house with ridiculous materials that were costing me more money. They were cluttering me in and I threw them out and I just thought, why the fuck am I doing this? And then a few people around me seemed to be more successful, in galleries and stuff like that.
I got kind of disillusioned and quite cynical about things and I thought, well fuck it I’m just going to stop this altogether. I said, I don’t need to go out and buy a massive amount of this or that, I can just make something out of anything, I can do it small, it can just be about what I think. It doesn’t have to please anybody else.
You talked before about when you make something, you really want to make something right then and there. And then you play it around with it until you have these revelations of what it should be. How does it feel to have that exist as an object and you don’t touch it anymore?
It’s really weird, because another thing about doing retrospectives [is] most of the work is borrowed from people [and] there’s a massive insurance liability. It doesn’t belong to me, I’m not sort of allowed to touch it.
I’m also not a very precious person. I have a kind of a robust relationship with these things and quite a physical relationship with them. For me to see how careful other people are with it... it’s weird because I know what it can and can’t do and what’s okay. I quite like that someone’s looking after them because if they lived at my house they’d probably get taken apart at some point or they’d kick around.
I think sometimes you work gets saddled with descriptions of it being shocking or provocative.
It’s not as shocking as a lot of things that don’t get saddled with that—like all of politics.
Do you feel like your work is mischaracterized?
I always used to get [that] I was making one-liners, humorous one-liners. And yeah they might be humorous one-liners but it’s not only that. It used to get on my tits a lot but I think it’s difficult for people to talk about what it really is. They’ve got to hang on something, so they hang on that. I’m a bit more forgiving of their predicament than I used to be.
Sometimes people can think something very, very slight is shocking, like if I [slouches down and spreads legs slightly] sit like that. You know? It’s surprising what has power. People get unsettled but it’s very, very tiny gestures actually. That to me is a quite curious thing because then you realize how sort of confined we all are by our civilization.