Swimming in color, emitting a warm buzz: the work of out painter/sculptor Nicole Eisenman is alive. Her paintings are filled with bodies whose diversity surpasses even gender or sexual orientation. Like fluids, they pour into containers of different colors, shapes, proportions, and textures.
The Brooklyn-based artist has made it into the canon of fine art, having shown at the Whitney and MOMA in New York and at the MOCA in Los Angeles. Her first survey show occurred this year at New York’s New Museum, which has dubbed her “one of the most important painters of her generation.” Your favorite piece of hers might be “It Is So,” a mix of lesbians, sex, books, and cats that is at once extraordinary in its palette and simply a normal collection of shapes upon shapes, body parts on body parts. It is so.
AfterEllen.com: It’s hard to build a career as an artist. What was it like for you to get into this world?
Nicole Eisenman: It looked like this: I came to New York the day after I got my diploma from RISD. I always had it in my mind that I would be here and I didn’t waste any time. I really loved the energy of the city going back to when I was in high school.
You do what you have to do; you grin and bear it. There were years of working really weird and hard jobs—physically and keeping up with my art practice… I know it to be true that it’s not as easy to live in New York now as it was when I came here as a recently graduated person. We got a little bit more for our money than people get now. Young artists have to be a little bit more creative [now] in how they work the system.
I graduated, I got weird jobs, and I worked and tried my best to keep up my art practice—I guess that’s the short answer. There’s no other way to do it. I think it takes a good seven years of nesting in this city to get to a place where you can establish yourself and be comfortable… Everyone I know who grits it out ends up loving living here.
It Is SoNicole Eisenman via Anton Kern Gallery
AE: What was that big break for you? What launched you into the next phase of your career?
NE: I had a show at a gallery called Trial Balloon. It was an artist’s experimental art space. She put me in a group show and my worked garnered attention from the get-go. I think her space was getting a lot of attention; people were paying attention to the shows she was curating. Her name was Nicola Tyson. I had a few drawings in that show—three, four drawings—and they sold immediately. And after that, based on just a few drawings, I had a studio visit with a place called The Drawing Center, and they gave me a show and that was it; it was off and running. Once it started, it just very very slowly built on itself.
AE: You’re very quotable. One of my favorites is “strife feeds the beast.” How did this work as you began your career? Did you go through a tortured artist phase?
NE: Life for a 20-something is not easy. I think really the toughest decade of your life is between 20 and 30. It’s such a complicated period of time. My strife was internal and a reaction to what I was seeing in the world around me, coming into a political awareness for the first time in my 20s and reacting to limitations that the world puts on women. And I didn’t want any of it. I think a lot of my early work was reactive to stuff like that.
Strife can also be something to push back against. I think you need something to resist. I pay attention to what’s going on in the world like many of us do, and I allow it into my work. I think in my work I pay attention to everything and… the political narrative gets woven in with the personal narratives. Strife is something to push back on; it can be the parameters you give yourself or the parameters that get imposed on you by a world you want to change.
AE: A wonderful aspect of your paintings is that they have a political consciousness, but they also have an element of humor. What drives you to add humor to the stories you’re telling?
NE: Humor is hard for me to talk about, because I don’t really think I’m that funny. If I’m funny. It’s despite myself… I think anger and humor to me go hand-in-hand. Or sadness maybe. Humor really walks in lock step with really difficult emotions. It’s like the old adage: if you don’t laugh, you cry. I have had the idea in the past, more than I do right now, that humor is a way to allow people to approach something, and then the punchline is actually the kick in the ass or you get socked in the gut. The joke is like a welcome mat, and then you come inside and it’s a house of horrors. But it’s a way of allowing people into the work easily.
AE: Some young artists worry about being labeled as solely a queer artist or a female artist, even though they proudly identify as such in their personal lives. Did you have that experience starting out?
NE: That’s really interesting, because a lot of queer artwork that I know is being made by queer people, and it’s like the queerness is really codified and abstracted and buried in abstractionist.
That seems to be something that I see a lot of right now.
I think the stakes were different for me, because there wasn’t an art market that I imagined myself [being in]—I was so outside of a commercial system… When I came to the artist world in the late ’80s/early ’90s, it was like Mary Boone, Leah Costello, Marian Goodman or bust. There were only big galleries; there wasn’t a sprawling art market where people of all different ages, ethnicities, sexes, could have shows. It was a straight white male art world by and large and it didn’t seem accessible to me. There were no stakes, because I was so far outside it. I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do! And I think there’s a kind of self-consciousness on the part of artists now because they know they could get a piece of the pie. And I think they’re very aware even as young students that there’s this market they could enter if they choose to. Not wanting to be seen as a queer artist is a very cynical career move honestly… Be seen however you are and if your work is strong enough, it transcends politics–identity politics. Or let that be a part of it; if that’s a part of you and that enters into the work, speak to it. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter.
Your work always reflects you. You can’t really deny it. I made the same mistake too, though, at some point when I was younger. Initially, I was just making the work I needed to make. I wanted to put images I wanted to see out in the world. There was a lot of gay imagery, queer imagery, feminist imagery, but I think at some point I also rejected the idea of being seen. I didn’t want to be ghetttoized as a gay artist and at some point I had to push back a little on myself and be like I don’t want to be in your gay show because every single show I’m getting invited to be in is a gay show and I’m going to try to do something else. And so I can’t say I never had those thoughts either. It’s complicated. I do feel like it is kind of a never-ending thing, coming out in my work. But where I’ve landed is… in a way, it doesn’t matter how you position yourself. In time, your work either stands up for itself or it doesn’t.
The bottom line is that if a young artist is doing it from having any fear whatsoever about losing their market or limiting themselves and their marketability because of being seen as queer, then that’s a huge mistake. That’s just being guided by fear, and then you end up reifying and bolstering a straight dominant art culture.
Alice in WonderlandNicole Eisenman via Anton Kern Gallery
AE: Do you think that culture has changed since you got started?
NE: I think it’s changed tremendously. The change comes in both directions; there were artists who were willing to put their queer voices out there. And then I think there are more women collectors, African American collectors, collectors of color who are looking to make their art diverse… From the top down, the collectors have a responsibility—in a way, a moral responsibility—to make well-rounded collections and a lot of these collections end up being gifted to public institutions and I think the right thing to do is to make a diverse collection so that we don’t end up seeing the same thing over and over in our institutions. So from one end to the other, the art world has changed and continues to diversify and welcome diversity.
AE: You’re friends with out writers Eileen Myles and Grace Dunham. Have you found a community of queer women creatives in New York?
NE: I wouldn’t even say it’s a queer woman community—it’s just a big queer community. I have a lot of trans friends and straight dudes and I think it’s a really diverse group of artists/makers.
I think in the ’90s and into the aughts, I was really seeking out queer woman, but the conversation around who gets defined as woman and who informs and teaches me has broadened.
AE: Did you ever come out via your art? Given our culture’s default assumption of heteronormativity, do you feel like you are still continually doing this?
NE: Yeah, I definitely came out in terms of my art and it was really scary and really amazing and thrilling. I think the first time when I did that show with Nicola Tyson at Trial Balloon—that work was so gay and open. The imagery was of a gay bar and lesbian sex, and I had not allowed myself to do that in college. But yeah, I came out in my art and it was extraordinary because it was at that moment that everything broke open… in a way, it’s just like a made for TV movie, where you allow yourself to be yourself and things start happening. It sounds a little bit Oprah-ish, but it was that for me… I do feel like it is kind of a never-ending thing, coming out in my work.
AE: Then you can have many Oprah moments. What is next for you?
NE: My next big project is for a show in Germany in June. I’m doing sculpture project for a show in Munster and it happens every ten years in the town of Munster. It’s exciting; it’s a pretty cool project. It involves large-scale bronze pieces and a fountain, a whole shitload of plaster.
AE: I have to ask you: I’ve noticed some cats in your paintings. Are you a cat person?
NE: [laughs] I’m not actually. I don’t have a cat. But I think they’re funny lesbian signifiers, and I use them that way.