Nicole Eisenman’s (1965–) artwork grapples with the confusing, often contradictory realities of the human condition. Although Eisenman has worked extensively with various mediums– including sculpture, drawing, illustration, and etching– she is best known for her figurative oil paintings. These introspective portraits put an intense focus on the individual or, in some cases, the multiple individuals that cohabitate the frame, while maintaining a larger consideration of cultural and political realities. Interrogating the juxtaposition between good and evil, despair and comedy, and repulsion and pleasure, Eisenman’s angsty, caricature-like output serves as a critical narration of our moment in time.
Eisenman was born in Verdun, France in 1965, where her father was positioned as a Freudian psychiatrist for the army. Later in life, Eisenman would fondly recall listening to her father interpret dreams, which has inspired her often-surrealist oeuvre. Eisenman grew up in Scarsdale, New York where her parents encouraged her love of art at an early age and provided her with a private art teacher as a teen. However, the quiet suburbs of Scarsdale were not fit for the young artist’s ambitions; on weekends Eisenman would escape into Manhattan’s East Village, where the punk downtown scene “matched the way [she] felt.” Later, while pursuing her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Eisenman was able to realize and explore her queer identity. The day that Eisenman graduated from RISD in 1987, she moved to New York City.
Upon arriving to Manhattan, Eisenman found a city at the height of the AIDS pandemic and ongoing culture wars. This radical social and political climate, along with the art world’s returned interest in figurative painting, served Eisenman and her practice well. At the time her work was, as she describes it, “aggressively out, and kind of making a joke about feminist separatism.” While dealing with her own lesbian identity, Eisenman’s art also began challenging sexism and mainstream culture; she visualized powerful women and submissive men through collages, drawings, and paintings seeped with dark humor and overt politics. After five years of working odd jobs, Eisenman devoted herself full time to making art in 1992. Shortly after participating in a series of small group shows, she was represented by Jack Tilton Gallery.
In 1995, Eisenman had her breakout moment during the Whitney Biennial, where her painting Self Portrait with Exploded Whitney (1995) garnered public acclaim. The large-scale mural depicts the collapsed Breuer building (then the home to the Whitney Museum of American Art) encompassed by a chaotic spiral of crumbled artwork and fleeing men. In the center of the apocalyptic scene, Eisenman sits in front of the one remaining wall, calmly painting. This satirical work serves as a wry commentary on the art world at large, while also confronting Eisenman’s own isolated, even ostracized position within the arts community. One year later, in 1996, Eisenman was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship.
For the past 25 years, Eisenman’s work has spanned a breadth of styles and themes, often directly borrowing from the history of art. She utilizes Italian glaze techniques of the Renaissance, creates Baroque inspired history paintings, builds off of social realism, employs the arbitrary coloration of Fauvists, and maintains the graphic qualities of pop artists like Tom Wesselmann. By reenergizing these past traditions, Eisenman poignantly demonstrates both how we have divulged from the past, and how we continue to relive outdated histories. For example, her popular beer garden series (2008–) transforms French impressionist cafés into Brooklyn social scenes, robust with hipsters, queer artists, and even amorphous figures. The works’ exquisite details offer moments of humor, while also reflecting upon the feeling of discontent and isolation in the face of social interaction. Her more recent autobiographical series stylistically and thematically borrows from Edvard Munch and James Ensor.
By adopting aesthetic histories into unparalleled forms, Eisenman’s art shatters visual hierarchies, pushes against a singular canon, and demands the recognition of new styles and voices within history at large. Through color, texture, and detailed narratives, the artist draws viewers in, and through humorous details she maintains onlookers’ attention. Yet, as Eisenman explains it, “Humor is an inlet. ''You can seduce people with it and make them happy, and then you can sort of slap them across the face and say, 'Look again.' Humor brings people into a piece, and then they'll scratch their head and think: 'Wow, what am I laughing at? Maybe this is really not so funny.'”
In 2014, Eisenman was awarded the MacArthur “Genius Grant” for, “Expanding the expressive potential of the figurative tradition in works that engage contemporary social issues and restore cultural significance to the representation of the human form.” Today, Eisenman lives and works in Brooklyn, and is represented by Hauser & Wirth and the Anton Kern Gallery. In 2014, her work was the subject of a midcareer retrospective organized by the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, which then travelled to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.
While the appearance of Eisenman’s art may continue to evolve– including, more recently, an expansive sculptural practice– the purpose of her creative practice remains the same; an unwavering dedication to contrasting the most extreme emotions within accessible frames of work, bluntly pointing a finger at oppression and inequity, all while maintaining the slightest glimmer of hope for the future.