Nicole Eisenman’s painting “Seder” puts the viewer at the center of a formal Passover family gathering. Standing in front of the canvas, one is invited to the table. Commissioned in 2010 by the Jewish Museum, “Seder” appears in the exhibit Masterpieces & Curiosities, where Eisenman’s painting resonates in different ways with the permanent collection of portraits and Judaica.
I looked for the humorous and exaggerated expressions typical of Eisenman’s works, but in “Seder” hunger, desire, and fun, seem secondary to awkwardness, nervousness, and loneliness. At the far end of the table, the mother stares directly at the viewer and holds a copy of the Haggadah. Her even eyes contrast with the disproportionate head and eye sizes of the family members in the foreground. One child pokes at her gefilte fish in boredom while the other one is about to fall asleep over his plate. The texture of the painting changes as the figures get closer to the viewer. Slowly, those moments of brilliant color become discordant, and the mood takes a disturbing turn: a relative to the left stares silently down, looking like an outsider at the dinner table. Gloppy slashes of paint trickle from his hair, while the disfigured eyes of the relative to the right show Eisenman’s masterful handling of paint to embody human expressions. The platter displayed at the center of the table, the matzah broken by the seder leader, and the Haggadot held by the guests are all elements connecting this contemporary piece to history as Eisenman works within the tradition and against it, portraying a traditional scene in a bold, expressive ways.
I couldn’t help but compare “Seder” to Eisenman’s past works of people gathered together. “Seder” is not as lively as “Brooklyn Biergarten II” (2008), displayed last year at the Institute of contemporary Art, in Philadelphia, in a much larger survey of her work. In this painting, figures sit comfortably close to each other, the warmth of night lights shining over the diverse group, even though death (in the figure of a skull) stares at them from a distant table. Neither is “Seder” as sexual as “Sunday Night Dinner” (2009), also displayed last year at the ICA, where a naked woman at the table is at the center of the male gaze. Rather, “Seder” is the type of get-together where the presence of family members repels any urge or desire. In her own words for Haunt Journal of Art, Eisenman expressed making “Brooklyn Biergarten” during a time when she was around family a lot, but longed for a social life. “I was feeling cut off from a community and nostalgic for it,” she said; the dozens of bodies crowded together in this painting could stand for her desire to be around friends. “Seder,” on the other hand, captures the loneliness felt when surrounded by relatives, and perhaps cut off from one’s group of choice. From the grotesque and distorted to the charming and tender, the figures express interest and boredom, making the scene familiar to anyone who has celebrated a family holiday.
In a corner of the gallery, Arnold Eagle’s black-and-white photographs from 1934, like Eisenman’s painting, feature the different affective states caused by sitting closely to relatives at the table. In the back of one photograph, a young girl looking fatigued puts her head down, looking as tired as the child in Eisenman’s painting, hinting at the universal moods experienced during Passover.
On nearby walls, hang multiple seder plates and Judaica, all belonging to the museum’s collection. Eisenman contributed two less traditional-looking plates for this show, one of which is glazed in light orange and divided into sections designating use, like “bitter herbs” and “egg.” The other plate, like her painting “Seder,” depicts people gathered around a seder, their carved figures viewed from a unique, bird’s-eye view.
In addition to the historical silver cups from the collection, there are contemporary additions by Jewish, feminist artists working in the 1980s and ’90s. Next to a traditional cup of wine reserved for the prophet Elijah is “The Miriam Cup” (1997) by Amy Klein Reichert which was made to hold water and honors the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses, who led women after the escape of the Jews in Egypt.
On the opposite side of the gallery hang paintings from the museum’s portrait collection, including a scene of a family gathering by Nicole Eisenman’s great grandmother, Esther Hamerman, who was also a painter. Some of the paintings on this wall defy category. The most vivid and colorful portrait is Hyman Bloom’s powerful “Female Corpse,” painted in the aftermath of the Holocaust and that acts as a metaphor of the artist’s grief. The naked body’s rosy, golden palette reminded me of what Frida Kahlo wrote in her published Diary, as parallels between Kahlo and Bloom’s pain resonate: “gold is the gleam of metal through an open wound. Magenta is the color of blood. The most vivid and ancient shade.”
Another highlight of the show is Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s intimate group portrait of a German, Jewish family celebrating a seder, adding to the exhibit’s theme, which, in the end, is about feeling close to and apart from family, and how artists have captured these states with or against tradition.
Masterpieces & Curiosities:Nicole Eisenman’s Seder continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 23.