Brooklyn-based artist Nicole Eisenman is one of the leading figurative painters of her generation. She works with painting, drawing, sculpture, prints, and mixed-media works. Eisenman specializes in psychological dramas in paintings which often show cartoonish figures with big heads and bulging eyes, made with exaggerated, painterly lines. These people are portraits of herself, her friends, or imagined characters, often isolated and full of pathos and dark humor.
Eisenman, who grew up privileged in Scarsdale, New York, was the granddaughter of German-Jewish grandparents who fled their homeland in 1937, refugees of the Holocaust. Being gay and not being able to share this with anyone in high school was for her incredibly sad. “I remember walking down the halls of my high school actually in tears.” While she first had no place to fit into, eventually she did find a place for herself “somewhere between the art room and the parking lot, where kids smoked pot.”
She received her B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1987. She has taught at New York’s School of Visual Arts, Mount Royal College of Art in Baltimore, and Bard College in Annandale, New York. She is the co-founder of the queer/feminist curatorial initiative Ridykeulous.
Her powerful work explores the undercurrents of American society, rampant consumerism, and contemporary sociopolitical conflicts. Her style appropriates the composition and style of the great painterly traditions of Old Master and Italian Renaissance art. “I’d rather look at Bruegel. Ellsworth Kelly? No. Robert Ryman? No.” Her figures consort with lower life forms to tell a serious, sad, or funny story. She is partial to somber colors of muddy browns and dark greens, that refer back to Depression-era art.
Her most ambitious works are large-scale street scenes crowded with figures, reminiscent of German Expressionism. One such painting “Coping” shows villagers and a mummy trudging home, caught in a deluge of thigh-high brown sludge that impedes their walking. This could be a scene taken from a Bruegel painting or from an Expressionistic James Ensor or Edvard Munch.
A recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant,” Eisenman had her first museum survey in New York City’s New Museum in 2016. In 2018, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and won the 2018 Suzanne Deal Booth/Flag Art Foundation Prize, which included a scholarly publication and two related exhibitions in Texas and New York. Also in 2018, the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Germany presented a solo exhibition of her work.
In 2019, her large-scale sculpture “Procession” was placed outside the Whitney Museum for its Biennial. However, she and other artists asked to have their work removed from the show in protest against the presence of a particular member on the board of trustees. When this person resigned from the board, she rescinded her request to remove her work. In the same year, her work was also included in the Venice Biennale.
She has exhibited in dozens of solo and group gallery and museum shows. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Denver Art Museum, San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center, Cologne’s Ludwig Museum, and others.