Everything you talk about when you’re painting is in there.
—Nicole Eisenman, in conversation with Massimiliano Gioni
My God what would the community think,
You are so beautiful, you are so beautiful.
—Cat Power, “What Would the Community Think”
Al-Ugh-Ories, the current Nicole Eisenman exhibition at the New Museum, is a kind of sampling of the artist’s work. Not a retrospective, as both Eisenman and Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director, insisted repeatedly during a public conversation last month, the one-floor show is, instead, something of a welcoming both for the artist and for the public. Though well known among artists and the art world at large, Nicole Eisenman has not been a household name. This changed somewhat last year, when Eisenman was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award.
The pieces in the New Museum show range from early work, such as “Spring Fling” (1999), to her more recent work, such as “Captain America,” (2016). The show is relatively small, just three rooms, and the result is as if the visitor is in a train speeding through Eisenman’s oeuvre. One thing that is immediately apparent is Eisenman’s streak of resistance, beginning with “Spring Fling,” a large painting of a female angel with a nod to the ridiculous à la Bouguereau or Tiepolo. The nude, angelic, female maybe-saint is a kind of candied Christ while at the same time, with the assistance of Eisenman’s titling of the painting, she is also an object of sexual desire — “Spring Fling” of course meaning a short term affair. And in this way, Eisenman complicates the staid history of art. And she suggested as much in her conversation with Gioni, when she said, “ I feel like my point of view is not represented and that drives me.” To take the history of art and turn it on its head may be part of her drive, but it is most certainly not all of it. For example, Eisenman does not simply refuse or resist art history. Instead, she complicates it, altering it with her own voice and experience. This is a really good thing — someone ought to be doing this work, and it’s great that Eisenman has taken it on. And though at first glance her work appears to be political, it appears so only due — as she stated herself — to the current state of the world. In other words, the world is askance. Perhaps painting can change that; or, if not, speak to it.
Save for two sculptures, the show consists entirely of paintings, including “The Work of Labor and Care” (2004), a large composition in which two figures make art out of what appears to be a gigantic mound of shit. The painting is full of strange hues: the mound is, of course, a rich brown; but the two figures, both wearing what appear to be gray sweaters and shirts, have a sickly yellow skin tone; and one has red ears, lips, and a red nose. The result is a grotesquerie reminiscent of the work of the German Expressionist artists Max Beckmann, Ernst Kirchner, and Otto Dix. These artists and their movement were deeply skeptical of modernity and the times they lived in, and their work serves as a kind of soundboard for this.
The most popular painting in Al-Ugh-Ories — if crowds standing before a painting count — is the beer garden painting, “Biergarten at Night” (2007). When asked about this work, Eisenman replied, “We live in a culture where — we are in trouble.” We are at the precipice of something. We are living in a precarious time and such times often render a society, overall, alienated. But such times also create extremely powerful communities in the face of such alienation and darkness — this seems to me to be what this painting relays and why so many New Museum visitors stood immobilized before it.
Eisenman’s concurrent show at Anton Kern Gallery takes off from “Biergarten at Night.” It showcases community in the form of late-night gatherings in apartments in Brooklyn or Manhattan. I was struck, at first, by Eisenman’s incredible mastery — the work feels both organic and natural in that the brushstrokes are fluid and forceful, made with the confidence of an artist who knows exactly what she is doing. This is the greatest joy: to stand before an Eisenman painting to marvel at the painting on the canvas. In her talk with Gioni at the New Museum, she said, “The more time you spend with a piece, the richer it becomes,” and this was apparent from the moment I stepped into the gallery. These are the painting of an artist who has spent years practicing, years both in the spotlight and in (relative) obscurity. Like looking at a Willem de Kooning, or a late Philip Guston, part of the exuberance of the works is the paint on canvas.
And yet, there is something else magical at work, something I tried for weeks to explain — there is a joy both in the hand, the actual paint and the painting, but, there is also a joy being conveyed in the works. The best example of this is “Another Green World” (2015), a large painting of a gathering in what appears to be a Brooklyn apartment (the porch in the background is open with a view of what looks like the Manhattan skyline). The painting consists of the same Eisenman palette of yellows, greens, and oranges, but the painting is, in a sense, celebratory. The construction is cluttered; there are people from top to bottom, from front to back — a man with a man, a woman with a woman, a man with a woman, and then individual people on their cell phones, looking at albums, resting. Not a “party” scene per se, the people are not moving or “partying,” but, rather, they are hanging out. And here is where something revolutionary occurs. Who has the time or the desire to “hang out” anymore? And why? This is what struck me after I had processed the genius of Eisenman’s painting work. The thick, richness of the paint, the ardor in the faces of the men and women (and, of course, the figures that appear both or neither male nor female), is apparent; these people are at home. In a city where everyone is a nomad, a country and culture where no one has a fixed home, where everyone is always busy, moving ever forward on the conveyer belt of self-propulsion, Eisenman’s paintings signal something different: an inkling to stop, to “hang out,” to find love in one’s community.
But what community? That is the question I pondered as I wandered the two rooms of the Anton Kern show, looking — or, rather, what felt like peeping — into the paintings or portals of this other world. What community? This community — the community in Eisenman’s paintings. In a world on the brink, some opt to move or race forward, while others mark their time in a place, finding an alternate home. Of late, I have been thinking of the lack of community in the art world, thinking of Chris Kraus’s Where Art Belongs, the Bernadette Corporation, the Lower East Side in the 1980s, and my own teenage community makings — finding an alternate home in an abandoned building in downtown Santa Cruz. In that place, that sordid and ruined place, I lived among other dreamers, and we spent our days doing nothing, mostly, making things with our hands, listening to music, and making community. Eisenman’s paintings in the Anton Kern show deliver this sense of communion — in the painting “Another Green World,” but also her lovely portrait of two female lovers, “Morning Studio” (2016), where, again, we witness a moment of community, of finding home among the incessant movement of our society. The look on the two figures’ faces is of longing and of being fed, fulfilled. One figure has her eyes shut, as if in dream, while the other stares back at the viewer.
In the back gallery are a sculpture, four mid-size paintings, and a series of smaller paintings hung salon style. The choice to hang the paintings salon style is another hint at community; it was and remains a way to present a large number of works side by side, one on top of the other, in a non-hierarchal manner. What is a community of artists and how and when does one occur? Who writes art history and why? And who gets to decide all of these important things? The small, deliberate choices that Eisenman is making serve to both anchor the work in a fixed time and space, while helping to open up these questions about art, about art history, and, yes, even about what an art community might look like.
Nicole Eisenman: Al-Ugh-Ories continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) continues through June 26. Nicole Eisenman continues at Anton Kern Gallery (532 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 25.