Why do some figurative artists get more museum attention than others?

by James Harrington | June 14, 2016

Nicole Eisenman New Museum Nicole Eisenman, Deep Sea Diver, 2007. Oil on canvas, 82 x 65 in. [1]
Nicole Eisenman, Deep Sea Diver, 2007. Oil on canvas, 82 x 65 in.

I recently visited the New Museum to see the Nicole Eisenman exhibition. I wondered why the gatekeepers of the modern art establishment permitted an artist who paints with traditional techniques to enter the contemporary museum world that generally balks at any sign of figurative art. Yet, Eisenman has been a sanctified member of the modern art establishment since the 1995 Whitney Biennial. In fact she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015. The MacArthur Foundation writes, “Eisenman has restored to the representation of the human form a cultural significance that had waned during the ascendancy of abstraction in the 20th century.”

I am happy to see any representational art being taken seriously by an institution like the New Museum, and though I have significant reservations about Eisenman’s work, I feel she deserves the attention. But giving her the credit of “restoring the representation of the human form to cultural significance” is just a bit too much. So many painters with superior abilities have maintained and passed on the tradition of figurative painting over the last century. Now we are living amidst a resurgence of the figurative aesthetic, nurtured by the generation that has now reached their twilight years. There are galleries and even museums like the Butler Institute of American Art that provide an outlet for these artists, but it is a world outside of the contemporary art establishment that sanctifies the art celebrities of our day. Just what is it about Nicole Eisenman’s work that opened the doors of the Whitney and the New Museum? Why is her work culturally significant and the work of generations of figurative painters not? When the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave Lucien Freud a solo exhibition back in 1993, many figurative artists had similar reactions. Why this guy?

Nicole Eisenman New Museum Eisenman_311_SpringFling_raw[2]
Nicole Eisenman, Spring Fling, 1996. Oil on canvas, 65 x 52½ in. Collection of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg.

Part of the answer lies with the MacArthur Foundation’s characterization of Eisenman’s work. It implies that the painters who have carried on the tradition of figurative painting have not created work that speaks to the culture at large, or to the art world cognoscenti. The actual problem is that the elite tastemakers in the very exclusive modern art establishment don’t want something that appeals to the masses. This establishment audience wants something new and different, something traditional art is not particularly good at providing. If I am any reflection of the current figurative scene, we are inordinately enamored of technique. We spend years developing technique, and in the contemporary art scene it has been regarded as something somewhat crass. It is part of the reason why we are so alienated from contemporary art. Contemporary art is often largely devoid of traditional technique and very concept heavy. Place absolutely anything in the context of art and it is art. It may be replete with technique, just not what we think of as the techniques of painting, sculpture, or drawing. It may have great writing, great acting, be a wonderful performance or film, but still lack what we figurative artists are accustomed to thinking of as technique. The language is different—elements and principles of design be damned!

Then along comes Nicole Eisenman. Why do the critics love her so? She paints well, though not remarkably. There are other painters out there far more worthy of being honored for making figurative art relevant again. Harvey Dinnerstein[3], Odd Nerdrum[4], Jenny Saville[5], and Steven Assael[6] come to mind, just to scratch the surface of the army of painters worthy of more notice. What does the establishment think that she has that the others do not?

Nicole Eisenman New Museum Nicole Eisenman, Coping, 2008. Oil on canvas, 65 x 82 in. Courtesy of the artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Galerie Barbara Weiss. Photo: © Carnegie Museum of Art[7]
Nicole Eisenman, Coping, 2008. Oil on canvas, 65 x 82 in. Courtesy of the artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Galerie Barbara Weiss. Photo: © Carnegie Museum of Art

Well, she is edgy and funny. She is among the smaller number of figurative painters whose work is about something outside of uninterpretated representations of the observed world. She incorporates the compelling subjects of gay life, gender identity, and contemporary politics in her work. It is important to come at art from the outside of mainstream culture to be acceptable. Her work is very concept-rich and ambiguous enough to permit viewers to develop their own interpretations of the work. Realists who delve into politics are often specific to a point where the work becomes didactic. Eisenman never leaves the viewer feeling that they being subjected to a visual lecture. She tries to tackle more universal themes as in Coping. This work vividly portrays the feeling so well known to all of struggling forward, our feet dragged down in a morass of troubles. In other of her canvases, we are looking at a visual joke such as her painting of a man wearing a t-shirt that says “I’m with Stupid” with a arrow pointing down to his exposed penis. But it is more than a joke; there is plenty of room for interpretation and gender politics.

Nicole Eisenman New Museum Nicole Eisenman, Night Studio, 2009. Oil on canvas, 65 x 82 in.[8]
Nicole Eisenman, Night Studio, 2009. Oil on canvas, 65 x 82 in.

Eisenman is a very thoughtful painter, and that is why the contemporary art world is responding so strongly to her work. They want ideas to discuss, and she delivers. Perhaps the fact that she actually paints is sort of a perverse pleasure for them. It’s crass, but it’s good, retrograde but entertaining. Figurative art is so “outdated” that is has become chic again. Contemporary art hasn’t been very rich in painted visual images for decades. Just look at the other current exhibits at the New Museum. There are live actors dancing and wrestling with each other in a large and very bare glass partitioned area in the lobby (Cally Spooner: On False Tears and Outsourcing[9]). There are typical rock-climbing walls on the fourth floor where all of the hand and foot grips for climbing are penises (Andra Ursuta: Alps[10]). We are meant to look at this stuff, but that doesn’t make it visual expression. It’s more about the ideas than the means to express those ideas. Eisenman still relishes the process, the technique. She also makes many visual references in her work to the traditional masters she admires. She stands astride two extremes of the art world and has found an uncanny balance between them.

Eisenman enjoys the paint in a sensual way like many of my favorite painters do. That is why she is referred to as a painter’s painter. The fact that her technique doesn’t rise to the level of other contemporary figurative artists is irrelevant. Paint is the language she uses to express her ideas with, and isn’t that refreshing for everybody?

Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories continues at the New Museum[11] through June 26, 2016.

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  3. Harvey Dinnerstein:
  4. Odd Nerdrum:
  5. Jenny Saville:
  6. Steven Assael:
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  9. Cally Spooner: On False Tears and Outsourcing:
  10. Andra Ursuta: Alps:
  11. New Museum: