I first met Nicole Eisenman when I was an undergrad at RISD....she gave a talk about her work and I was immediately drawn to her sense of humor and the way she was able to use a myriad of techniques to create different images and ideas. As an impressionable young artist I found her approach liberating but also saw a sincere commitment to a thorough exploration of painting --- I've been an avid follower of her work ever since. Her recent show at Leo Koenig seemed to me to exemplify this, and I really felt the impact of that as a bold statement about making paintings in the contemporary art world. So when she agreed to be interviewed about her work, I decided to jump right in:
BJ: Do you see the act of painting as an intellectual pursuit, and does the object of virtuosity interest you? Do believe in the idea of the masterpiece?
NE: I'm not that interested in virtuosity. That makes me think of Michelangelo’s David... couldn’t care less, Sir! I do believe in The Masterpieces though, like this or these:
NE: (continued) Virtuosity (we're talking about the ability to handle paint here) can help to make a masterpiece but it’s not a necessary element. There are lots of different elements that make a masterpiece in various combinations like humor, touch/texture, pattern, conception, color, passion - for starters. Yes, painting is an intellectual pursuit; it’s also an emotional and spiritual pursuit, a kind of reckoning with the infinite possibilities of the universe. The pursuit is for an understanding of the deep patterns that make up our lives and that go beyond intellect and into the realm of the body - via paint. It’s the internal reacting to the external; the paint expresses the former and representing the latter. The payoff is the moment when you bring something to life that has never existed before anywhere else.
BJ: I'm with you that masterpieces can take many (or any) form (and love Picabia)...it's such a weighty concept, was curious to hear (or see) your thoughts. Looking at your work over the years, you have hit so many different directions in how you paint, I think in asking about virtuosity I was trying to get at ways you are able to switch it up - seems to me that your skills as a painter have helped you really nail some ideas and generate such powerful images because you can work in all these different languages. Is that something you think about? Or maybe you just feel comfortable taking risks in your studio and kind of winging it that way?
NE: That’s a pretty great compliment. Thanks, man! I’ve put the focus in the last few years on buffeting homogeneity in my work and only in the last 2 or 3 years has it come together. I had a mini retrospective a few years ago at the Kunsthalle Zurich; it looked like a totally disjointed group show! I realized that the slipperiness of my so-called style was at the heart of the show and it was interesting bouncing around all these differing realities. I began thinking about how within a painting, different things want to be painted different ways. I can’t imagine its very FUN to continue to work at a process you’ve gotten comfortable with or mastered, so you push into unknown territory to work out new ideas. Paintings inevitably get good when you give up hope, then it's easy to take a risk because there’s nothing to lose. It's all about ruining shit and thus saving it from predictability. Not to say I don’t have a studio overflowing with broken paintings that are beyond redemption.
BJ: How do you think about the idea of the one liner in your work... (i.e. Jesus Fucking Christ, Alice in Wonderland) lots of jokes in paintings of yours from the 90s and maybe less so in newer paintings. Is that something you have thoughts about?
NE: Yeah, at some point around '01-'02 I got tired of jokes, of trying to be funny. I wanted to focus on painting. Painting isn’t a great medium for jokes. It can be, to an extent. Kippenburger made funny paintings. Maybe some of my paintings are slightly funny but it’s a different kind of humor, not one-liners.
BJ: and a follow up --- how does that mean you are now able to explore more complex themes? Or be more open about your interior life in your work?
NE: Maybe I am more open, who knows? In the 90’s I was often the subject of my work, I really put myself out there. Now the paintings feel more connected to my subconscious and dream life, and the themes are more personal and complex -- actually they’re so complex I don’t know what they are half the time. The emotional range of my early stuff is fairly one dimensional; it was all about anger. Now my anger is punctuated by rage… and joy and sadness and whatever else there is.
BJ: You grew up in Westchester right? As a former suburbanite, have ideas about the "city" entered your artistic consciousness in a way you ever think/thought about? How has your perception of NYC and yourself as a New Yorker affected your work over your career?
NE: Yup, I grew up in the suburbs. I was born into that universe and as a kid, as far as I knew, it was good. When I was old enough to come into the city to hang out, I immediately hated the bullshit agenda of the suburbs. I guess I was 15 when I started checking out the art world, the clubs, music… it was a fun and raw scene in the east village in the 80s; I became enlightened to the possibilities. I guess the city wrenched me out of my cocoon of childhood. Well, it depressed me too, because the difference between normative suburban culture and freaky punk fucked-up city culture where there seemed to be this amazing smorgasbord of ideas was stark! Such was life before the internet. Now everybody has access to everything. There were obvious advantages to being in NY after college, I met a lot of artists and curators who where hugely influential. It’s hard to sort out what the city's influence has been on my work, it’s like asking what the temperature's influence is on my work.
BJ: Yeah, true, I guess it could be chalked up to an "everything in life" type thing - but was wondering how/ if you see yourself as a NY artist -- especially because you’ve been painting scenes from the city recently -- seems like its become a subject in your work?
NE: I don’t really see myself as a New York City artist. That makes me think of the Ashcan school or Abstract Expressionists. I draw so much from European painting, I see myself more aligned with German art culture. However, yes, the city (mostly bars in the city) turn up in my work. I have been painting stuff from my life, people I know, places I frequent.
BJ: You had a pretty well-read blog (ha, or I read it in any case) in the early wild west days of blogging, but ended it in like 2006(?) or so...how did blogging affect your work and do you miss that presence?
NE: Oi, the blog. I loved that activity… at first. Creating a little zine for a handful of friends who were mostly blogging as well was amazing; we’d have these hilarious conversations with each other. In its own little way it caught on and I realized the extent to which I was exposing myself so I pulled back. I enjoyed scouring obscure corners of the Internet, but that hobby wore itself out. It gets tiresome reading and forming opinions on every damn thing: what's cool, what’s interesting, what’s pathetic… this movie, that piece of trash on the ground, who cares. Right?
BJ: Ha! Well if your opinions are good and you post interesting/funny things, people will read it...especially if they are bored and at work... And facebook? Does that scratch some of those itches but limit it to your friends?
NE: That’s funny. While all my blogger friends were doing it at their soul sucking jobs (which is totally reasonable), I was doing it instead of painting! The problem with FB is it’s SO socially complicated! I’m always struggling with who to accept/ignore while trying to hold on to a small shred of privacy. I’m self-conscious on FB so I end up limiting how much I use it. The anonymous audience on the blog was freeing. That’s funny that you read my blog.
BJ: So how do you see the act of making oil paintings in a digital era -- with an infinite amount of images circulating on the internet? Do you think about the digital life/afterlife of your paintings?
NE: The over abundance of disposable and meaningless images gives oil painting more value. It's shocking to go to a museum now and be reminded of the power a painting can have after surfing the internet all day. A good painting completely resists assimilation. 90 years after Monet painted the waterlillys at Giverny, they still confound me - I was looking at those recently. Painting carries within it the spirit of the painter; it is an artwork’s physicality through which a deep connection with the viewer occurs. It’s the realization that you're not just looking at a painting, say, Van Gogh made, one can actually commune with his spirit, just by looking, and time collapses. Sometimes when I look at paintings I love I almost feel like I’m breathing through my eyeballs. Does that ever happen to you? Also, the paradox of not having that connection is interesting as David Humphrey said in his brilliant book Blind Handshake…"The lack of connection between the artist and the viewer must be part of the artworks enduring and distinct appeal. The Paradox of detached connection might have fetish-like powers that could help explain the persistence of such an inefficient form of pleasure."
BJ: Yeah I've had sublime experiences when looking at paintings for sure, I've fallen prey to big grey Agnes Martin grids in such a way, the Rothko chapel in Houston shut my brain off completely the first time I went, and there's some Edward Hopper maneuvers in painting sunlight on the sides of lighthouses that I carry around in my head with me every day...
Speaking of detached connections... do you think your paintings as they exist in jpeg form are "diluted" then? Or do you see them as inhabiting a different kind of environment?
NE: Yes, it’s a different environment and I have no control over it. It’s definitely diluted. Computers can't represent texture, subtleties of color, the affect of scale etc… You can never see how thick a painting is painted and if you can, then you can't see something else, like the whole image at once. That said, once the image enters into the sea of images on the internet, it has a life of its own, but it's not art anymore. I pull images off Google all the time and mess with them and those images end up back in circulation, an endless loop of corrosion/creation. And of course there are plenty of paintings I’ve only seen in reproduction some I chase down to see in real life.