A statue of a sitting figure bent over a cellphone, housed in the Hall of Sculpture.

Alone in the Crowd: Nicole Eisenman Confronts Separation

Among the collection of Greek and Roman statues housed in Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Sculpture, there is a singular white figure dangling its legs from a pedestal on the upper tier. He hangs his head, seemingly apathetic, gazing at his own black hands, which are gripping what appears to be a cell phone.

Prince of Swords, one of Nicole Eisenman’s plaster sculptures, embodies a refusal to be defined—much like the artist herself. The smartphone prince is refreshingly jarring set against a backdrop of classic sculptures, while Eisenman’s own gender fluidity challenges the institutions that command her to fit into one of two neat, little boxes. Although her sculpture is part of a related group, something about it seems to stand alone from the other plaster bodies.

“There’s always this instrument between you and what you’re creating,” said Eisenman. “In sculpture … you’ve got your hands on these things and you’re massaging them into existence.”

In her risk-taking, the payoff is immense—in 2013, she won the Carnegie Prize when she brought her work to the Carnegie International. Her exhibition, Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ories, was on display in June at the New Museum in Manhattan, and last year, the MacArthur Foundation recognized her work with its prestigious “genius grant.”

Rejection of a single identity or style fuels both Eisenman’s work and personal life, cultivating an autonomy which allows her to experiment with a variety of themes, media, and styles. Despite having a body of work which encompasses several decades, Eisenman continues to morph.

After graduating with a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1987, Eisenman had her first solo exhibition at Santa Monica’s Shoshana Wayne Gallery in 1992. Since then, her paintings and sculptures have boasted such prestigious homes as Studio Voltaire in London and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Different humanoid characters in a cityscape “trudge through a river of brown goo.”
Nicole Eisenman, Coping, 2008. Collection of Igor M. DaCosta, New York, courtesy of Galerie Barbara Weiss.

Studying Eisenman’s paintings, she has a tendency to render expressionless, gender non-conforming figures. The faces feel abstractly flat, yet fleshy. Their eyes almost never meet the viewer’s, creating a sort of intentional alienation, a sense of disconnect. In Coping, Eisenman’s characters trudge through a brown river of goo, each with a deadpan expression despite the outlandish situation. The title, rather telling, seems to evoke a sense of isolation.

In an interview with Artnet, Eisenman confirms that during her college years she felt largely detached from the people around her. Not only had she discovered the punk community in 1990s Providence, but she had unearthed a “pissed-off mood” in the city, which matched her own.

“I was separate in some very deep ways from my family and from people in general, but that didn’t preclude me from being critical of this insane culture we’ve created,” said Eisenman. “I was looking two ways at once, intellectually at the world around me and [emotionally] back to my own experience.”

Beer Garden with Ulrike and Celeste, a part of a hipster socialite series, seemingly modeled on Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens, features a crowd of dull faces. In the foreground, a yellow-skinned woman stares at—but doesn’t seem to see—the ruddy-faced man before her. Even the man’s ginger lap-cat is frowning. The painting, exhibited at the 2013 Carnegie International, shows the simultaneous freedom and frenzy inherent in group settings, allowing one to either find or lose himself.

Painting of a man and woman sitting at a crowded beer garden table, talking to a waiter; a cat sits on the man's lap.
Nicole Eisenman, Beer Garden with Ulrike and Celeste, 2009. Courtesy of the Hall Collection.

In that vein, Eisenman’s work is deeply indicative of a certain path to queerness. Whether it’s an intimate painting of two lovers sharing an embrace or a hint at Eisenman’s journey into gender and sexuality, the work presents the deeply humorous side of human uncertainty and questioning.

According to poet Eileen Myles, “Nicole has always had the gift of unselfconsciously converting her own self-consciousness into yours.”

But you don’t have to be a lesbian to connect with the characters in Eisenman’s work; the faces are real, reminiscent of the blank gazes we meet every day on the street, resounding a multifaceted social separation that arises from belonging to a group—or physically presenting yourself in a group you don’t belong in.

Circling back to the Prince of Swords, the sculpture’s moody head-hanging and incongruity with the other sculptures in the room seem all too appropriate.

“There’s more wrong with the [sculptures] than there is right,” said Eisenman.

A statue of a sitting figure bent over a cellphone, housed in the Hall of Sculpture.
Nicole Eisenman, Prince of Swords, 2013. Carnegie Museum of Art, The Henry L. Hillman Fund. (Courtney Linder/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Maybe that’s true, but that’s the point. Her melancholy forms are constantly searching for themselves, an homage to the universal human condition.

Since its inception in 1896, the Carnegie International has been Carnegie Museum of Art’s signature survey series, the preeminent exhibition of new international art in the United States.