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Nicole Eisenman’s figurative works had brought her acclaim well before figuration was fashionable. The “rediscovered star of the figurative art, making waves in 2021”- according to Anna Touzin of Christie’s - has been awarded with many prizes. A Guggenheim Fellowship (1996) and in 2013 she won the Carnegie International Prize. She was selected to show at the 58th Venice Biennale. But her annus mirabiliswas 2019 when she had her third show at the Whitney Biennial and she signed up with the giant Hauser & Wirth.

Related articles: Anthony Cudahy - Jordan Kerwick - The 58th Venice Biennale

During the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, in her Williamsburg studio, the American artist Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, France) has created some of the most ambitious works of her career - while listening to the news or to podcasts, as she’s always been doing. Three large figurative and narrative canvases virtuously painted: a bicycle accident with two fallen figures; a dreamy procession involving someone atop a giant potato; and a man on a fragmented path escorted (or blocked) by Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs. The largest, about eleven feet by nine feet, is the bicycle slow-motion incident. “It’s a romantic painting of two people meeting”, but potentially hurt, she said.


Nicole Eisenman, Destiny Riding Her Bike, 2020 © Nicole Eisenman. Image courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo Thomas Barratt.


Eisenman started drawing cartoon figures with distortions of their hands, feet, and noses in her bedroom in Scarsdale, New York, where she grew up. One of her youthful pastel, depicting a greasy couple on the beach, had just sold in a New Jersey auction for around twenty thousand dollars. Eisenman, “whose paintings and sculptures often show people trying to make the best of tragicomic circumstances” - as perfectly described in a recent New Yorker’s profile by Ian Parker - creates very fluid, open and loose and fun artworks.


Nicole Eisenman’s portrait © Nicole Eisenman.


In the early nineties, when Eisenman was studying abroad in Rome, any storytelling, from Renaissance art to Michelangelo’s giant bodies, spoke to her. Her painting technique used to follow the example of Leonardo’s frescos: painting wet paint into wet paint, to modeling it. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1987. In 2015, she won the MacArthur Foundation fellowship - the “genius grant” award - for “expanding the critical and expressive capacity of the Western figurative tradition through works that engage contemporary social issues and phenomena.” Her great-grandmother, Esther Hamerman (1886-1977) was considered a folk artist, a practitioner of memory painting. 


Nicole Eisenman, Where I Was, It shall Be, Oil on canvas, 165.1 x 208.3 cm / 65 x 82 in, 2020, © Nicole Eisenman, Photo: Thomas Barrat for Hauser & Wirth.


The daughter of a psychiatrist, Eisenman constructs vulnerable-looking figure making awkward things. Images filled with jokes, savant art-historical memory, stories of political inequity. Her characters - expressionistic portraits of herself and her friends, likened to those of Edvard Munch, Hieronymus Bosch and Federico Fellini - are based on Eisenman's observations of the dynamics of contemporary life from a cultural perspective.

Eisenman had her first success in the nineties, with very aggressively drawings, - a bit shocking, a bit funny - such as Jesus Fucking Christ(1996). Things changed around 2005, after she started to infuse her paintings with good and evil, melancholy and decay, tenderness and brutality. From the “irreverent-punk phase” to “smooth as butter” years, filled with satirical folktales, psychologically loaded, and people, painted at various levels of verisimilitude, out of the reach of memory. One of Eisenman’s best-known work, Another Green World (2015), now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, applies the ritual theme of the triumph of life and love over the waste land, as in Shakespeare’s comedies, to a good houseparty in Brooklyn.


Nicole Eisenman, Coping, 2008, Oil on canvas, 65 × 82 in, 165.1 × 208.3 cm, Courtesy New Museum, New York.


Though Eisenman is known for her paintings, she also creates installations, drawings, etchings, lithography, monotypes, woodcuts, and sculptures - like the monstrous, distorted and eviscerated ones shown at the 58th Venice Biennale. With the American artist, author and activist A. L. Steiner, she is the co-founder, of the curatorial agitpropinitiative “Ridykeulous” which encourages exhibitions of queer and feminist art. The narrative of Eisenman’s latest paintings - directly referring to the experience of the pandemic - is like a “ridiculous”, yet tragic dance. The disaster has happened, but there is a kind of excitement inside this disaster.


Nicole Eisenman, Another Green World, 2015, oil on canvas, 128 × 106 in. (325.12 × 269.24 cm), Courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. 


Nicole Eisenman, Morning Studio, 2016, Oil on canvas, 66 × 83 in, 167.6 × 210.8 cm, Courtesy ICA Miami.


Cover image: Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011, Oil on canvas, 39 × 48 in, 99.1 × 121.9 cm, Courtesy ICA Philadelphia.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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