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For her first museum survey in New York, open May 4 at the New Museum, Nicole Eisenman has chosen what might seem like a dopey title. She went with “Al-ugh-ories,” presumably because she finds it difficult to utter the word allegory with a straight face. It is, after all, a literary term and perhaps a little grand, evoking the days when paintings came stocked with fluttering cherubs and an overlay of moral uplift.
Now 51, and a recent recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant,” Ms. Eisenman is one of the leading figurative painters of her generation. You might say her accomplishment has been to introduce the pictorial equivalent of an “ugh” — a note of grunting emotionalism and comic self-reproach — into contemporary art. She specializes in psychological dramas in which figures airlifted out of art history consort with lower life forms, namely, cartoon people with big heads and bulging, tennis-ball eyes. Unlike other artists, who swipe from high and low culture as if stripping a car of its most valuable parts, Ms. Eisenman wants the different elements in her paintings to hang together and tell a serious, sad-funny story.
Put another way, she’s Kafka with a paintbrush, mindful of the nightmares of history and partial to somber, social-realist colors (muddy browns and greens) that hark back to Depression-era art. It is perhaps relevant that her German-Jewish grandparents fled their homeland in 1937, refugees of the Holocaust. Ms. Eisenman’s awareness of the European past is matched by her attention to the politics of the American present. Tellingly, the Uncle Sam who pops up in her painting “Tea Party” (2012) is a shrunken figure with a hole in his red-striped pants, sipping on his tea as two right-wingers seated beside him assemble a bomb.
Ms. Eisenman’s most ambitious works consist of large-scale street scenes crowded with figures and intimations of her Expressionist forebears, especially James Ensor and Edvard Munch. In “Coping” (2008), weary villagers (and a lone mummy) trudge home from work, oblivious to an alarming deluge of brownish sludge that rises to their thighs and impedes their motion. It is hard to think of another painting that says so much about stagnation (whether economic or emotional) with so many humorous touches. A half-timbered Tudor building in the background could belong to either a medieval town square or the Tudor Revival shopping areas favored in affluent suburbs such as Scarsdale, N.Y., where the artist grew up.
These days, Ms. Eisenman is based in Brooklyn, and her studio occupies a nondescript space on the second floor of a brick-faced building in Boerum Hill. I recently stopped by to visit with her and Grace Dunham, who contributed an affectionate and well-written essay to the catalog for the New Museum show. The two women met last summer in a bar in New York and became instant friends, perhaps because they are both well acquainted with the bumps and stresses of the artistic life. “I understand artists’ egos all too well,” Ms. Dunham wryly notes. At 24, she is the younger daughter in a creatively fecund clan that includes her sister, Lena, and their artist-parents, Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons.
“I just moved to L.A.,” Ms. Dunham noted, referring to her career as an activist. “I’m working on a project with two close friends who are coders and have a web-development firm called Jodie. We’re building a crowdfunding platform to help queer and trans people raise money for prison-related costs — bail, bond, commissary.”
As the afternoon unfolded, the conversation shifted effortlessly from art and identity politics to the rewards of female friendship. These are edited excerpts.
Nicole, to what degree do you think your work reflects your life, your autobiography?
NICOLE EISENMAN Work comes out of life. Where else would your work come out of, if not your experience? Being a queer woman is the air that I breathe, and it’s inescapable, and it’s going to be part of the work. But I would like gender to just disappear from the face of the earth.
I am sure you’re familiar with the formalist argument that art comes out of art, and remains untouched by everyday life.
GRACE DUNHAM Who was at the forefront of formalism? C’mon.
EISENMAN All white men!
DUNHAM Do you know what they are? Deluded. People who are living under the delusion that their work is separate from their identity and experience are generally people who are benefiting from enormous amounts of structural privilege.
Surely some art is purely formal, like the abstract paintings of Ellsworth Kelly.
DUNHAM Hell no! I would never ever accept someone’s work as purely formal.
EISENMAN I’d rather look at Bruegel. Ellsworth Kelly? No. Robert Ryman? No. I have a problem with the fact that the world feels like it’s on fire and we’re all going to hell in a hand basket — and an artist can just paint white on white? It’s so divorced from reality. It’s too privileged.
You both come from very privileged backgrounds.
EISENMAN You have to acknowledge your own privilege. Otherwise you’re walking around with a blindfold on. I was just thinking about myself in relation to environmental issues. I have stopped accepting offers from people who want to fly you to Chicago to do a talk, or fly you to Arizona to do a talk for one night. It’s crazy.
Do you mean on a private plane?
EISENMAN No, on a regular plane. Any plane. We do this without thinking.
That’s ridiculous! The plane is going anyway. Your presence doesn’t increase carbon emissions and is likely to add to the amount of inspiration in the world.
EISENMAN I think there are great people in Arizona who could talk in Arizona. They don’t need to fly people in. Keep it local! Or Skype me in. Let’s all figure out ways to do things where we don’t have to use as many resources as we use.
You grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., right?
EISENMAN God. Are you going to write that? Ugh.
Did you find high school alienating?
EISENMAN I remember walking down the halls of my high school actually in tears. Like, I can’t do this.
Which part of it?
EISENMAN I think it was my freshman year, just feeling like I had nowhere to fit in. But the thing about my high school, about most high schools, is that you find a place for yourself. It was somewhere between the art room and the parking lot, where kids smoked pot. And I played sports, which kept me social in a different way.
It doesn’t sound so oppressive.
EISENMAN It was horrible. I didn’t have sex when I was high school.
EISENMAN They may not be going all the way, but they’re making out and going on dates. They’re exploring their sexuality with each other, and that I missed out on, and that was oppressive.
Were you aware that you were gay?
EISENMAN I definitely knew, and I didn’t have a soul in the world to share it with. (Laughs.) I had the pillow in my bedroom. So sad. The receiver of my tears.
Grace, what are you up to these days?
DUNHAM I’m gay. Did you figure that out? I just put out a book of poetry online, “The Fool.”
EISENMAN Grace has multiple girlfriends. Every gay person under the age of 25 is in love with her. It’s so hard being Grace.
DUNHAM Oh, shut up.
EISENMAN Just say Grace is my son. Just say he’s my adopted son. He showed up on my doorstep.
Nicole, do you refer to yourself as a she or a he?
EISENMAN I’m gender fluid, but I use the “she” pronoun. I’m a little old school. I believe in the radicality of stretching the definition of what “she” is.
DUNHAM I’m with her. I like it all. I think it’s all stretchy if you let it be.
EISENMAN Stretchy and lezzy.
Nicole, what’s your advice for younger artists?
EISENMAN Oh God. Be that kitten on the branch and hang in there, baby!
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