One day in the early 1990s, I ran into my friend Faye Hirsch—an astute critic—who breathlessly informed me that she’d just come from a studio visit with a genius! I’d never heard anyone, and certainly not Faye, say such a thing in my life. “Well, if Faye says so, I’m willing to entertain the idea,” I thought. But while I could eventually see what she’d meant—prodigious energy, check; implacable ambition, check; dazzling technical facility, check—it was hard for me to be quite as enthusiastic about the work of Nicole Eisenman as Faye was. Her style seemed so retro: There was something very 1930s about many of Eisenman’s paintings, something reminiscent of Paul Cadmus, Reginald Marsh, and Isabel Bishop in the “epic, obscene panoramas” (as Terry Castle has called them) that she was painting in those days—canvases and murals “in which po-faced naked giantesses squat, squit, and break wind, form cunnilingual daisy-chains, rain urine down on the world from baroque cloud-perches, and harpoon luckless males in order to emasculate them with pirate efficiency.”
Eisenman’s slightly dowdy and all-too-illustrational approach to figuration did lend a definite charm and humor, even a kind of sweetness, to her renderings of sometimes violent fantasies that might otherwise have been hard to take. She was using a gambit I’d seen some artists employ in the previous decade, giving a knowing twist to an unfashionable historical style in order to make something that felt new. In these early works of Eisenman’s, a strange reversal was taking place: It was the seemingly “innocent” and nostalgic style that lent sophistication to the ostensibly cutting-edge yet unmistakably and defiantly crude subject matter. And yet, and yet… I was (and remain) too wedded to the aesthetics of modernism—you might even say of formalism—to be entirely convinced by an art fixated on a bygone style that was itself already so indebted to premodernist modes of representation. Two steps forward, but only one step back; two may be one too many for me.
Although Eisenman and I have crossed paths socially now and again, this wasn’t a conversation we’d ever had. But now I wonder, in retrospect, whether she didn’t eventually come around to seeing things in a similar way. She recently had two shows in New York City—a presentation of recent work at the Anton Kern Gallery and a bigger (though still not big enough) survey, “Al-ugh-ories,” at the New Museum. It was telling that the museum show, curated by Helga Christoffersen and Massimiliano Gioni, included only one work from the 1990s, though a painting from 2000, Dysfunctional Family, harks back to Eisenman’s earlier style, albeit in a slightly more sedate manner. The little brownish “conversation piece”—as informal group portraits used to be known—could have been a Saturday Evening Post illustration, if the weekly champion of midcentury middle-American mores were apt to promote households in which Mom does the knitting with her skirt hiked up to reveal an undie-free crotch while Dad sucks on a giant bong and Junior, his face conveying disinterested curiosity, smashes his baby penis to bloody bits with a hammer.
But the bulk of the show—paintings dating from 2004 through 2014 and a couple of new sculptures—represents a distinct shift. Not that Eisenman has abandoned her historicism; far from it. If anything, her range of references is wider and deeper than before. But now she’s almost always working out her raucously polyvalent approach to contemporary figuration by way of the various modernists who revised the pictorial tradition—Ensor and Munch, Picasso and Matisse, Guston and Baselitz—rather than trying to make an end run around them through a peripheral tributary. The same was true of a much larger traveling show organized by the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, and which I saw at the ICA in Philadelphia in 2014. Its emphasis was on the last decade; although Eisenman’s work of the ’90s was represented by many of the drawings and watercolors there, only one canvas was dated earlier than 2005.