Nicole Eisenman: Untitled (Show)
On ViewHauser & Wirth
May 5–July 29, 2022
Nicole Eisenman never asked me to put them on a pedestal, but as a young lesbian art historian in the mid-2010s, that is exactly what I did. Their darkly comic work spoke to me because it visualized the awkwardness of being queer, before the term became a trendy punchline squeezed into too many grant applications and exhibition proposals. At the same time, utopian scenes of self-sufficient women capturing and annihilating men fed an angry teenage heart still hiding behind the veil of adulthood.
My introduction to Eisenman’s art came through the cover of a book that formed the foundation for my dissertation study, Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (2003). The work, titled Invisible Woman (2002), depicts a green-faced figure, the torso and breasts represented only by a thin outline and thus rendered transparent against the humble townscape that occupies the background. A stylistic collision of Tamara de Lempicka and René Magritte with a secret ingredient I couldn’t quite put my finger on, this work, I was surprised to learn, was by a contemporary artist, still very much alive and active. Indeed, one of Eisenman’s most brilliant skills is their ability to plunder art history without being derivative, making use of sources that range from Holbein to Goya, Picasso to Munch, all deployed in a fashion both utterly rebellious and deeply intelligent. Their paintings exemplify the fact that building a queer future does not preclude an interest in the past.
Last month, Eisenman opened Untitled (Show) featuring a total of twelve paintings and seven sculptures spread across two floors. The expansive room on the fifth floor presents a series of ten (mostly) large canvases depicting a range of subject matter. A bike accident occurs (Destiny Riding Her Bike, 2020), while a lonesome character watches TV on the couch (Reality Show, 2022), and a female-presenting figure poses in lingerie against a background of constellations (Nash, 2022). Several canvases, all depicting heads, verge on abstraction. Perhaps informed by artists such as Marsden Hartley and Lee Lozano, these works seem to show Eisenman’s interest in moving away from figurative painting after all these years. The most populous painting, The Abolitionists in the Park (2020–21), is the only reminder of the allegorical character of much of Eisenman’s previous work.
While Hauser & Wirth’s press release describes this exhibition as “the clearest demonstration of what they have been doing for the last three decades,” I find myself somewhat disagreeing with the suggested clarity. Feeling stylistically and conceptually disjointed, the exhibition almost seems like Hauser & Wirth ordered “one of each” from Eisenman’s oeuvre as if it were a tapas platter. One painting, however, pulls me closer. The Ledge (2022) depicts a solitary figure walking along a beach at sunset, with a bird flying ahead of them as if to lead the way. Defined by long geometric brushstrokes, the painting is reminiscent of a linoleum print, and partakes of a Kirchner-like sensibility, if only through its ability to convey the anxiety of existence. I want to meditate on this work longer, yet I am distracted by a large yellow Marsden construction crane with a cat’s head suspended from it on a metal chain. Curiously, the crane was not present at the opening, when the cat head and chain rested on the floor—a gesture I was also unsure of. Apparently, the crane was being held in customs, and did not make it to the gallery on time. Now that it has arrived, the crane’s presence disturbs me, suggesting a strange sort of sizing contest in which a large phallic mechanism has grabbed a pussy by its head.
Having descended to the second floor, I encounter what is surely the most ambitious piece in the exhibition: Maker’s Muck (2022). A large kinetic sculpture, this work is composed of a plaster figure hunched over a potter’s wheel on which a large chunk of clay spins in endless circles. A heater positioned in front of the assemblage renders the clay moist, creating an illusion of process. On the surface where the figure sits are scattered objects, ranging from sculpted ketchup bottles and painting tubes to abstract chunks, and, most fascinatingly, some miniature versions of works from Eisenman’s oeuvre. For example, we find a small replica of the artist’s sculpture Love or Generosity (2020), which is installed in front of the courthouse in Amsterdam. This is an interesting and productive Duchampian gesture, showing us Eisenman taking stock of their oeuvre. To me, the sculpture seems a darkly ironic comment on the experience of an artist incessantly creating for an insatiable art market. Their production, ultimately, is an illusion: the clay spins, but it always remains the same.
In a wonderful story that Eisenman recounted to W Magazine in 2016, the artist relates how during a studio visit with Ann Philbin in 1992, the curator, then director of the Drawing Center (and notoriously the basis of the character Bette Porter in The L Word), fished a drawing out of Eisenman’s trash. The drawing was a now-famous image of Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble fucking (Betty Gets It, 1994). “This is what you should be doing,” Philbin said. And for years, Eisenman did just this, using humor as a seductive strategy for political awareness. The work now on view at Hauser & Wirth seems mostly a departure from this sensibility, and Eisenman has given us little to help orient our experience. Consequently, Untitled (Show) feels a bit like a showroom of objects produced for a hungry art market, in which even titling your exhibition has become a futile gesture. Perhaps this is the point—it would fit Eisenman’s sense of humor. I can’t help but wonder, however, what the artist might recover from their trash today, and where it may lead them.