Nicole Eisenman Savors Her MacArthur Moment

Interview by ROBERTA SMITHSEPT. 29, 2015

“I was totally surprised; I never thought I was the kind of person to get a grant like that,” says the MacArthur grant recipient Nicole Eisenman, left, at her studio with the graphic designer Tiffany Malakooti. Credit John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Continue reading the main storyShare This Page

On Tuesday the art world awoke to find that the painter Nicole Eisenman, 50, had received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship for “expanding the critical and expressive capacity of the Western figurative tradition through works that engage contemporary social issues and phenomena.” Roberta Smith, co-chief art critic of The New York Times, spoke with Ms. Eisenman in her Brooklyn studio. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

Q. Has your phone been ringing off the hook?

A. Yes. Actually, I gave a lot of thought to what to say when people started calling, how to get ready.

Q. Maybe work up a few sound bites. How did your family take the news?

A. Well, my family already knew. The MacArthur people told me that I could only tell one person, but I ended up dividing that one person into several. By now, it’s grown to 12 to 18 close friends and relatives.

Q. So you start off by breaking the rules. Do you think they can rescind a MacArthur?

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The 2015 MacArthur fellows include, from left, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Dorrance and Lin-Manuel Miranda.MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ Winners for 2015 Are AnnouncedSEPT. 29, 2015 A. They can’t. They’ve already given it to me.

Photo Nicole Eisenman’s painting “Break-Up,” from 2011. Credit Librado Romero/The New York Times Q. You mean it’s in the bank?

A. No, but they sent me a very official letter that I consider a promissory note.

Q. I’m sure lots of people would like to know how you find out that you’re receiving a MacArthur. Is it a formal letter?

A. No, they call you up and tell you really fast before you can hang up on them because you think they’re making some kind of sales pitch.

Q. They don’t tell you that maybe you should sit down?

A. No, but they should have. It was a really weak-in-the-knees moment for me. The woman had to repeat it several times and finally she just said, “You’re on speaker phone; the whole committee is here and they’re all saying congratulations.”

Q. Did you get hints?

A. No, I was totally surprised. I never thought I was the kind of person to get a grant like that.

Q. But in a sense that’s the MacArthur’s position. They are intentionally bringing people in from various margins, in terms of their work, race, gender or sexual identity, showing that “genius” is in effect everywhere.

A. I agree. I thought it was really great that Alison Bechdel [creator of the graphic-memoir that was the basis of the Broadway show “Fun Home”] got one last year, but I never thought I would.

Q. When they phoned, did something go off in your brain that said, “Oh great, now I can finally afford to do such and such …”?

A. Well, the one thing I am thinking is I’ve never had an assistant. I might hire one to handle correspondence and outside stuff.

Q. Finding out was thrilling for me. But your work has always come at me in an explosive way, in the beginning because of its forthright emphasis on anger, feminism and queerness, not to mention humor. And of course you exploded into public consciousness with “Self-Portrait With Exploded Whitney,” a wall mural of the museum in ruins in the 1995 Biennial. Then there was your 2009 show at Leo Koenig, which just floored me. You opened up to painting and its history in a new way, with color and texture. It was like looking at a whole different artist. Then your white plaster sculptures exhibited at the Carnegie International in 2013, around the atrium. But the transition signaled by the 2009 Koenig show remains especially fascinating to me. What happened?

A. I don’t know. Around 2000, I just started feeling that there was a certain rigidity in my work. I was looking at a lot of abstract painting at that time.

Q. Like whose?

A. Well, Charline von Heyl and Amy Sillman — especially Amy. I didn’t want to paint abstractly, but their work had a kind of openness that I wanted. I was tired of the images being tightly worked and also of the way they resolved into simple jokes and political points.

Q. Your drawing-oriented work seemed to take from two distinct periods: Renaissance and Baroque, and American Social Realism, like Reginald Marsh and Paul Cadmus.

A. Who were themselves influenced by Renaissance and Baroque art.

Q. That’s true. But when painting started coming to the fore in terms of texture, color and mood, it seemed that you were suddenly attracted to a whole different part of art history, as if you’d discovered Post-Impressionism or German Expressionism.

A. Well I started looking at a lot of stuff, East Coast, West Coast, for example David Park, but I found him too messy and Abstract Expressionist.

Q. But it wasn’t a matter of suddenly discovering the German Expressionists.

A. No. My mother’s parents were German, and when I was growing up [in Scarsdale, N.Y.] I was very aware of German culture and of much of that early-20th-century work. I always admired how angry they were and how much of that anger was in their marks. But in truth, once I started showing in Europe, I spent as much time as I could going to museums and looking at painting, starting in Italy and working my way north, all the way to Norway for Edvard Munch.

Q. Do you feel that one of the reasons you were able to move toward painting and greater fluidity of meaning was that things had changed over the course of the 1990s, the art world was becoming a bit more open and your anger was less urgent?

A. Well, in some ways I think that conversation around queer politics is more or less over because of the success of the gay community in mainstream culture. Now the conversation has shifted to class, and that’s where I want the focus of my work to be. There, and on race and trans politics as well.

Q. And is that by definition a more complicated thing? I mean, some of your earliest work waged a kind of war on men and you had a clear-cut drawing style that was perfectly suited to it. Now it seems — at times at least – that you’re using color and form in ways that talk about race and gender partly by removing them from the picture. In your 2011 painting “Break-Up,” a big face is riveted by a cellphone. It has a magenta nose, brown and green cheeks and orange ears; there’s no race. It could be any gender. We’re just looking at someone — anyone — trying to get through life, and we can’t place who that person is in stereotypical ways.

A.There is no set way to deal with a question as broad and deep as identity and I don’t want to limit myself to any one way of painting. Sometimes figures are clearly defined, sometimes it’s ambiguous or the question simply evaporates. I’d like to tap into a universal human experience but know there’s no such thing; we all experience the world differently. When gender and race are eliminated, something else is left to see; other connections are made between the figures and their worlds.