Best known for the lurid splendor of her colorful oil paintings, American artist Nicole Eisenman might seem an unlikely champion of the more understated craft of printmaking. Unpredictable and labor intensive, prints require a mind (and body) as patient as it is curious, as diligent as it is open to surprise. Prints don’t blare from the gallery walls; they murmur. They require a viewer invested in the deeply intertwined wonders of both process and product.
Eisenman’s print work demands — and rewards — such attention; they are figuratively and narratively layered, and rich with graphic detail, droll humor, and political implication. Nicole Eisenman: Prince, on view at the Print Center New York, presents more than 40 works from the artist’s printmaking experiments over the past 10 years, ranging from small-scale portraits to large-scale canvases of collective revelry. As she explores the subtleties of human depravity and everyday delights, Eisenman honors the extent to which the two often felicitously coexist. A longtime LGBTQ+ activist, she depicts intimacy between figures that rarely conforms to gender binaries; kinship networks are prioritized over romantic coupledom.
In “Sloppy Bar Room Kiss” (2011), two figures lock lips while seemingly passed out on the corner of a table, their limbs tangled tenderly below. “Watermark” (2012) foregrounds a cartoonish hand scooping up oatmeal in what appears to be a cozy Maine abode, as two young girls read together on a couch in the background. “Thinker” (2012) presents a voluptuous nude woman stretched supine, a thought bubble containing a can of Bumble Bee tuna hovering over her. In a similarly wry vein, “Twelve Heads” (2012) features a sullen bust in its bottom third with phrases scattered across its surface — the word “joy” becomes “toy” when the J is flipped; such is the artist’s universe. Itself punning the medium of the show, Prince reveres printmaking as an expression of personality and vision equal to any other in Eisenman’s oeuvre.
Playful as her content can be, mortality and peril make sober cameos. (Fittingly, in printmaking the term “ghosting” refers to an image from a previous print carrying onto the current page.) In “Tea Party” (2012), a skeleton clutches a scythe that doubles as an American flagpole; and in the collograph “Night Smoker,” an abstracted profile eyes us while taking a drag on a cigarette. In “Contagion,” an etching with aquatint from 2012, reprinted with green and red ink in 2022, strangers loom around a smartphone that cryptically reads “TG POV NICE.” The massive “Beer Garden” (2012–17) — a combination of etching, aquatint, and drypoint chine collé — depicts, among the raucous hoi polloi, two figures scanning a newspaper with the headline “Drones Over Occupy Protest” blazoned on its back page. It is at once timely to 2012 and reminiscent of the ACT UP protests of which the artist took part in the early 1990s.
If God (and the Devil) are in the details, the craft of printmaking proves a powerful outlet for exploring Eisenman’s most enduring themes. “It felt really freeing,” the artist reflected in an interview with Vogue, of her decision to stop painting and focus on prints for a year. “Suddenly there was a whole new set of problems and puzzles to play with.”
Nicole Eisenman: Prince continues at the Print Center New York (535 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 20. The exhibition was organized by Jenn Bratovich and Judy Hecker.