Beyond The Cover: Nicole Eisenman

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by Kristin Farr for

Early on, it was marshmallows. “I really was obsessed with them for a few years in the ’90s. I’d draw polka-dot eyes and a straight-across line for a mouth; they looked amazing in large groups,” Nicole Eisenman revealed, as we dug into her early work. The marshmallow installations were an indication that she would master elegance. Even with faces made of uncomplicated marks, the impact of her figures, whether realistic or cartoonish, is immense and immediate. She has the magic touch. Elegant is a word you might think of when describing a fancy dress, but its true definition suits our cover artist well—gracefully concise and simple; admirably succinct. Expressing these qualities is how you become the voice of a generation. Or at least an intelligible, unforgettable voice in a generation.

Last year, Nicole Eisenman was awarded the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant, and this year she had concurrent exhibitions at The New Museum and Anton Kern Gallery. Imagine being labeled the voice of a generation, or being credited with making figurative painting relevant again in the twenty-first century. These are heavy descriptions Eisenman is shouldering, and she does so with grace and staunch tenacity. She deftly controls the veiled commentary in her images—their witty, universal truths, observations, and power dynamics.

Today, the voice of a generation would speak for teenagers as well as their parents. It’s an absurdly broad stroke, but Eisenman’s work does indeed resonate across a wide demographic. I told her that it seemed like a lot of pressure to be labeled a generational voice, and that despite the nonsensical definition, I could think of no better way to describe her. She graciously countered, “Thank you, but this is an insane idea. There couldn’t possibly be one voice for a generation! In terms of what gets remembered, time will reveal which artists come to represent the age they live in. I can’t tell if what feels important now will feel important in 10, 50 or 100 years. And besides, who even cares? Talking about reputation and legacy feels petty when faced with the shit show that is humankind’s current situation, vis-à-vis, Earth!” Amen.

Eisenman comes from a legacy of painters, including two great-aunts and her great-grandmother, Esther Hamerman, whose work became known when she emigrated to New York after escaping an internment camp in 1944. The family resemblance between Eisenman’s paintings and her great-grandmother’s is clear. They both paint figuratively and make cultural commentary, but nostalgia isn’t a primary influence for Nicole. “My parents and older relatives have an interest in our family history and have passed the stories down to my brothers and me. Stories come to me through a veil of nostalgia, at least I sense that feeling. I myself don’t feel nostalgic for any given time or place, or at least I can say it doesn’t inform a position I make work from.”  I felt I knew her just from looking at her work, and asked what personal references she might hold back from the paintings. “I’m curious about what you feel you know,” she responded, “I’m sure it’s right to some extent. I hold back what feels unnecessary to the painting. Every decision an artist makes is a choice not to go in the unchosen directions.”

She has developed her own take on new and known stylistic directions, gliding easily between cartoon and realistic, historic and contemporary, familiar and unusual, self-referential and social. “There are reasons why everything looks the way it does in a painting; there are subtle formal concerns that guide those decisions. Sometimes I want to keep a work open, so it doesn’t get located in any specific mode. Especially when the paintings get crowded, I want them to be formally complicated.” And timeless. They will successfully tell a human story in a direct way for generations. Though they sometimes reflect a depressing picture of ourselves, they appeal to us because they seem empathetic to our situation.

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