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Peter Schjeldahl on Nicole Eisenman: 'Seriously Funny'


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For the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl writes a wonderful profile on painter Nicole Eisenman, who is the subject of a current mid-career retrospective at the New Museum. Read Schjeldahl in partial below, or in full via the New Yorker.

A succinct Nicole Eisenman retrospective of twenty-two paintings and three sculptures, at the New Museum, is accidentally well timed to the recent news that the MacArthur Foundation has awarded a “genius” grant to the spectacularly talented, darkly hilarious New York artist. That’s good. Any attention drawn to Eisenman benefits conversation about contemporary art. At fifty-one—tall and stovepipe slim, with a strikingly long face beneath close-cropped black hair—Eisenman has mellowed only slightly from the raucous wunderkind who burst onto the scene in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. Since then, she has led a kind of one-woman insurgency, bidding to reshape the field, with figurative works that collapse the political into the personal and the personal into an erudite devotion to painting. She paints narrative fantasies that look bumptiously jokey at first, but reveal worlds of nuanced thought and feeling. They must be judged in person; in reproduction they lose the masterly touch that is Eisenman’s signature. The MacArthur Foundation cited her for restoring “to the representation of the human form a cultural significance that had waned during the ascendancy of abstraction in the 20th century.” I’d like it to be true. Eisenman’s resourceful Expressionism hints at the power of narrative painting to re-situate the art world in the world at large.

Eisenman is an artist of overlapping sincerities. One of them suggests that of a bohemian community organizer. In “Biergarten at Night” (2007), dozens of characters—some realist, including a self-portrait; others fanciful, such as an androgynous figure passionately kissing a death’s-head—hoist brews in velvety shadow and glimmering light. Each face is painted a bit differently, in a range from filmy to impastoed, and each feels individually known: liked, not liked, loved, perhaps feared. The longer you look the more meaningful the picture becomes. It does indeed recast bohemia in a convincingly up-to-date guise—in Brooklyn, of course, where thousands of the art world’s threadbare strivers reside. Similarly compelling are two big, populous paintings that signal Eisenman’s response to the Great Recession. In “Coping” (2008), poignant citizens of a strange village meander waist-deep in a caramel-colored flood. In “The Triumph of Poverty” (2009), a crowd treks past a beat-up car in a rural scene; one of them is a dishevelled rich man whose dropped pants reveal that he is ass-backward.