Museum  April 10, 2024  Katy Diamond Hamer

Exploring 30 Years of Nicole Eisenman’s Rich Figurative Work

Image courtesy of Hall Collection.

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Beer Garden with Ulrike and Celeste, 2009. Oil on canvas; 65 × 82 in. (165.1 × 208.3 cm). Hall Collection. 

Ever a topical painter with unexpected ways of distorting and abstracting the human body, artist Nicole Eisenman has been commenting on politics, relationships, sexuality, and technology since her earliest explorations. Her exhibition, Nicole Eisenman: What Happened, which just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and is on view through September 22, 2024, is a comprehensive survey of the artist’s work from 1992 to the present that demonstrates the breadth of her inquiry. 

Having traveled from the Museum Brandhorst, in Munich and Whitechapel Gallery in London, the show’s staging at the MCA, which has been organized by Monika Bayer-Wemuth and Mark Godfrey in collaboration with MCA curatorial staff including Jadine Collingwood and Jack Schneider, is the exhibition’s final stop. The show includes a selection of over 100 works including several made in 2024 for this iteration.

Photo: Ingo Bustorf. Courtesy Kunstmuseum Den Haag

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Trash’s Dance, 1992. India ink on paper; 22 × 30 in. (55.9 × 76.2 cm). The Hort Family Collection.

The MCA exhibition has a special selection on view including paintings on canvas, mixed media on paper, and sculpture. In some of her work dating from the early 1990s, the artist’s interests and inspirations seem more evident as the paintings in question include a multitude of figures not unlike the paintings made by the Mannerists, but here the artist uses various shades of a singular color in elaborate scenes. With titles such as Trash’s Dance (1992), Artforum (1993), and Lemonade Stand (1994), these three examples feature monochromatic tones ranging from shades of pink, grey, and blue and a landscape of bodies. 

This modality of working with many figures in a what feels like a small space is also relevant once again in The Abolitionists in the Park (2020-2021) which the artist made during the pandemic in reference to friends and family who protested after George Floyd’s murder in support of Black Lives Matter. The work is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and features a selection of people sitting in a park, clustered together with only a small section of ‘ground’ (in this case a blue picnic blanket) visible.

© Nicole Eisenman. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), The Abolitionists in the Park, 2020-21. Oil on canvas; 128 × 106 in. (325.1 × 269.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Green Family Art Foundation Gift, 2022. 

In true Eisenman fashion, figures vary wildly from being rendered in a representational manner to having more cartoonish visages. The work documents a time in our recent history that is not soon to be forgotten. 

“Based on memories and experience rather than press photographs, The Abolitionists is a very rare contemporary history painting, and a remarkable achievement,” wrote Mark Godfrey in his extensive catalogue essay. “Whereas Eisenman had chosen to fictionalize Trump supporters, she populated this scene with several recognizable individuals, [Hannah] Black, [Tobi] Haslett, [David] Velasco, and writers Sarah Nicole Prickett and Jasmine Sanders among them.” The central figure is Hannah Black, a British visual artist, critic, and writer who stares out from the canvas, unabashedly meeting the gaze of the viewer. 

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011. Oil on canvas; 39 × 48 in. (99.1 × 121.9 cm). Collection of Cathy and Jonathan Miller.
Image courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011. Oil on canvas; 39 × 48 in. (99.1 × 121.9 cm). Collection of Cathy and Jonathan Miller.

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Another Green World, 2015. Oil on canvas; 128 × 106 in. (325.12 × 269.24 cm). The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Purchase with funds provided by the Acquisition and Collection Committee.
Photo: Zak Kelley. Courtesy MCA Chicago

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Another Green World, 2015. Oil on canvas; 128 × 106 in. (325.12 × 269.24 cm). The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Purchase with funds provided by the Acquisition and Collection Committee. 

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Coping, 2008. Oil on canvas; 65 × 82 1/8 in. (165 × 208.5 cm). Collection of Igor DaCosta and James Rondeau. Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss.
Photo: Bryan Conley, © 2023 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Coping, 2008. Oil on canvas; 65 × 82 1/8 in. (165 × 208.5 cm). Collection of Igor DaCosta and James Rondeau. Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss. 

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), From Success to Obscurity, 2004. Oil on canvas; 51 × 40 in. (129.5 × 101.6 cm). Hall Collection. Image courtesy Hall Collection.
Image courtesy Hall Collection

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), From Success to Obscurity, 2004. Oil on canvas; 51 × 40 in. (129.5 × 101.6 cm). Hall Collection.

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Long Distance, 2015. Oil on canvas; 65 × 82 in. (165.1 × 208.3 cm). Private Collection, NY, courtesy Anton Kern Gallery. Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Long Distance, 2015. Oil on canvas; 65 × 82 in. (165.1 × 208.3 cm). Private Collection, NY, courtesy Anton Kern Gallery.

Installed largely in chronological order, What Happened invites all present into Eisenman’s mind which delves into the deep philosophical struggles of our time but not always without humor, evident specifically in some of the works on paper. Two of these include Shit My Lips Are Chapped (1995) in the newspaper comic style of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy and Alice in Wonderland (1996) which features a costumed Wonder Woman and a cartoonish likeness of Alice from Lewis Carroll’s children’s novel standing underneath the superhero, her head disappearing between muscular legs. Eisenman seamlessly weaves a narrative between sexuality and politics, realism and pop art, and various art histories resulting in an encounter that is historic in its own right. 

Eisenman, who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2015, has given a voice to the LGBTQI community since she started painting. Evidenced in many of the works on view including Sloppy Bar Room Kiss (2011), which shows two seated women, their bodies bent onto a table, lips locked and Morning Studio (2016) where two women lie on a chaise lounge one with yellow skin wearing a grey t-shirt and pants, stretched over her shirtless, bare-breasted partner and an ashtray full of cigarettes nearby.

Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, Verdun, France; lives in Brooklyn, NY), Drone Painting #1, 2018. Oil on canvas; 56 × 43 2/3 × 1 1/2 in. (142 × 111 × 4 cm). Collection of Eleanor and Bobby Cayre, New York. 

The artist has always presented the queer experience without reservation, and teeming with intimacy. While ever present, the subject is only a part of a conceptual whole that bends and twists over time and feels just as important as Eisenman’s relationship with technology. In Long Distance (2015), we see a figure from the back wearing a yellow baseball cap and a black-and-red plaid shirt staring at a computer screen, while another, in repose on a bed, stares back. 

In Drone Painting #1 (2018), a figure in profile with close-cropped hair and huge eyes controls a drone that hovers nearby and raises questions about surveillance. The way that the artist composes our experience with technology, it’s evident that the digital age is both necessary and a distraction. 

In a recent conversation with curator Jadine Collingwood, Eisenman shared that she has “an interest in allegory and how to transmute large stories into symbolic images." She continued, "A lot of this work comes out of a history of political cartoons, but how to do that and infuse it with something more personal.” With a fresh lens, What Happened offers the opportunity to move through thirty years of work in one afternoon. 

41.897215964247, -87.6211955

Start Date:
April 6, 2024
End Date:
September 22, 2024
Venue:
MCA Chicago
About the Author

Katy Diamond Hamer

Katy Diamond Hamer is an art writer with a focus on contemporary art and culture. Writing reviews, profiles, interviews and previews, she started the online platform Eyes Towards the Dove in 2007 and was first published in print in 2011 with Flash Art International. Interview highlights include Robert Storr, Helmut Lang, Courtney Love, and Takashi Murakami. Taking a cue from art writers such as Jerry Saltz and movements such as Arte Povera (Italy, 1962-1972), Hamer believes that the language used to describe contemporary art should be both accessible to a large audience as well as informed regarding art historical references. Clients include Almine Rech, Hauser & Wirth, Grand Life, The Creative Independent, Art & Object, Artnet, Cool Hunting, BOMB, Cultured Magazine, Galerie Magazine, Flash Art International, W Magazine, New York Magazine (Vulture), The Brooklyn Rail and others.  Hamer is an Adjunct Faculty member at New York University, Steinhardt School of Education, and Sotheby's Institute of Art. Previously she taught Continuing Education at the New York School of Interior Design.

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