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The Wicked Comedy of Nicole Eisenman's Allegorical Paintings

New Museum Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni discusses the painter’s first New York Survey.
Selfie, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Puns are often employed when discussing artist Nicole Eisenman’s work. A playful response to the painter’s wicked sense of humor, these jokes usually fail to capture the complexity of Eisenman’s comedy. Aligned with the rise of dark sitcoms like Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, her work employs the same strategies that comedians use when writing a script. In Comedy Writing Secrets, the de facto comedy-writing-101 book by Mark Shatz and Mel Helitzer, the authors list the six essential ingredients of a good comedy: Target, Hostility, Realism, Exaggeration, Emotion and Surprise. The chapter on Realism begins with M*A*S*H writer Larry Gelbart’s quote, "Most good jokes state a bitter truth."


One would be hard pressed to come to a different conclusion while walking through Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories, the artist's soon-to-be-closed New Museum survey.

Death and the Maiden, 2009. Courtesy the New Museum

A mixture of paintings from Eisenman’s oeuvre, rather than attempting a comprehensive overview, the exhibition hones in on her usage of allegory and symbols. “Nicole is an artist who has been playing with the history of art, while completely transforming it: she manages to both celebrate and destroy accepted histories and traditions,” New Museum Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni, who co-curated the show with Assistant Curator Helga Christoffersen, tells The Creators Project. “As Amy Sillman has written, Nicole is a very special artist because she is simultaneously killing the father—criticizing accepted notions of painting and art history—and keeping the grandfather alive, which means she rediscovers uncelebrated styles and traditions. I think these are the main elements which emerge from our exhibition.”

The Fag End II, 2009. Courtesy the New Museum

Ignoring chronology in favor of themes, the show adopts, rather than fights against, the way the artist is able to collapse multiple inspiration points into a seamless composition. On a stroll around Eisenman’s floor-swallowing show, one can become absorbed in trying to identify her references—it’s a Mad Lib with seemingly infinite possibilities, from Neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s Angelica in Chains to the cringe-worthy, “I’m With Stupid” souvenir tee.


Coping, 2008. Courtesy the New Museum

Reminiscent of the way serial cartoon series like Family Guy and South Park mash pop culture with history to form time-sensitive sketches, Eisenman’s images don’t shy away from the modern condition: they embrace it. IPhones and other technological gizmos appear again and again with references that will inevitably date the paintings. “Nicole's work is always very much of its own time,” Gioni says. “It is infused with a punk attitude which makes it quite tough, almost belligerent, even when it plays with references and quotations that are almost classical, and even when it achieves that trembling beauty that pervades some of her best work.”

Biergarten, 2007. Courtesy the artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Following in the footsteps of painters like Philip Guston and James Rosenquist, Eisenman’s collaged aesthetic and biting humor appears to have inspired a new generation of painters like Jamian Juliano-Villani, Orion Martin, and Emily Mae Smith. “Nicole started exhibiting in the early 1990s, a time in which painting was not particularly fashionable or popular,” Gioni says. “A few other painters such as John Currin or Elizabeth Peyton or Chris Ofili started exhibiting around the same time, but Nicole was younger than those colleagues and her work took a little longer to be noticed. More generally, I think her work has kept a polemical, at times even confrontational vein very much alive.”

As it is just as much about the human condition as it is about painting, Eisenman's work extends beyond the boundaries of the art world and into public discourse. Through their accessibility, her paintings are generous to the viewer in a way that most contemporary art is not. “I think I am constantly surprised and amazed by her ability to play on such a wide extension of themes and styles,” Gioni says. “Her voice is absolutely unique but she can speak in tongues.”


Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories ends this weekend. Go check it out at the New Museum—before it's too late.


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