6 Things to Know About… Nicole Eisenman

Portrait of Nicole Eisenman. Photographer: Brigitte Lacombe (Copyright holder)

1. Eisenman’s career began in New York

Nicole Eisenman was born in 1965 in Verdun, France. In 1970, Eisenman’s family made the move from France to, a town outside of New York,  where she spent her formative years. She went on to graduate from Rhode Island School of Design in 1987. It was in the early 1990s that Eisenman began to establish herself as an artist in New York, a period which coincided with the height of the AIDS epidemic and the culture wars. It was also at this time that painting and figurative art were making a comeback following a long period dominated by abstraction. A prolific and skilled painter herself, Eisenman found a strong place in this artistic landscape.

2. An explicit drawing in the bin launched her into success

A pivotal moment for Eisenman came in early 1992 during a studio visit by Ann Philbin, who was then the director of The Drawing Center. Philbin eyed and retrieved a drawing by the artist in the rubbish bin, which depicted cartoon figures Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble having sex. The piece titled ‘Betty Gets It’ was but one of numerous collages, drawings, and paintings inspired by comics and art history that challenged sexism in pop culture and simultaneously celebrated female utopias. This watershed moment marked a turning point for Eisenman, inspiring her to embrace a more personal and authentic artistic voice that had previously felt marginalized.

3. She came up with a vociferous community of artists, poets and filmmakers

Humour and Sexuality in its myriad forms have been a prominent theme from the beginning of Eisenman’s career. Back in the early 90s, Eisenman exhibited at David Zwirner Gallery in the group show titled Coming to Power, curated by artist Ellen Cantor. The exhibition was a display of sexually explicit artworks created by and for women, featuring works by prominent artists such as Nan Goldin, Alice Neel, Cindy Sherman, Lynda Benglis, and Louise Bourgeois

Nicole Eisenman, Betty Gets It, 1992, Ink on Paper, Collection of Cary Leibowitz and Simon Linge

Nicole Eisenman, From Success to Obscurity, 2004, Oil on canvas, Hall Collection


4. She turns ‘failure’ into success

Following a period of much success, Eisenman confronted the psychological trials of being an emerging artist as in the 2004 work From Success to Obscurity. Here, the Marvel Comics’ Thing is renamed ‘Obscurity’, and is a stand-in for the artist. No longer tough, poor ‘Obscurity’ hunches over a letter from a sender ‘Success’. No matter how thick-skinned the famed green monster might have become, ‘Obscurity’, with a quivering lower lip, looks hurt. 

5. She draws on art historical references

In the late noughties, Eisenman redirected her focus from introspective, self-examining works to a more global outlook. This turn, precipitated by major global events such as the 2004 re-election of US President George Bush, the infamous ‘War on Terror’, the catastrophic economic global downturn post-2008, and an escalating awareness of the climate crisis, saw the artist employ painterly socio-political allegories. Works such as Coping and the Triumph of Poverty harness the artistic language of early 20th-century figuration and expressionism, reminiscent of the styles prevalent in Vienna, where her grandparents once lived.

In another series, Eisenman selected the beer garden as her backdrop and crafted four significant pieces during this period. In two of these artworks, Eisenman depicted herself, seated alone and engaged in drinking, while among the many other characters in the scene, the spectre of death lurked.

6. Eisenman’s practice is always evolving

Eisenman is best known for her figurative paintings but is versatile across many art forms, creating installations, drawings, and sculptures. Her work blends personal and political themes. Eisenman’s artistic practice is constantly evolving, as evident from one of her latest pieces, Maker’s Muck (2022), which can be seen in Gallery 7. It’s a wooden stage featuring a potter shaping clay on a revolving wheel, surrounded by discarded sculptures and debris. Eisenman’s art captures the ever-changing journey of a lived experience and epitomises the experimental nature of an artist’s expanding body of work.

Visit Nicole Eisenman: What Happened, on until 14 Jan 2024.