New Nicole Eisenman Work Debuts in Paris Parallel to Her MCA Show

The artist’s first exhibition in the City of Light coincides with a major survey organized by Museum Brandhorst and Whitechapel Gallery on view now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Installation view, “Nicole Eisenman. with, and, of, on Sculpture” at Hauser & Wirth Paris, 5 June –21 September 2024. © Nicole Eisenman. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.Photo: Nicolas Brasseur

“The meat and bones in my practice is somewhere between texture and storytelling,” artist Nicole Eisenman once said. A New York Times critic called her “Kafka with a paintbrush, mindful of the nightmares of history and partial to somber, social-realist colors.”

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The artist’s first exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Paris, titled “with, and, of, on Sculpture,” explores the multiplicity of her output, from a monumentally scaled cortège to accessible line drawings. In tandem, a major survey exhibition, “Nicole Eisenman: What Happened“—organized by Museum Brandhorst and Whitechapel Gallery—is on view until September 22 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, spanning 100 works produced from 1992 to today.

It’s not Eisenman’s first outing in France. A show of her paintings, juxtaposed alongside work by Edvard Munch and Käthe Kollwitz, was displayed at the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh in Arles in 2022: “Heads, Kisses, Battles.” (The artist has spoken admiringly of Van Gogh’s wildly gestural canvases: “You can look at Van Gogh’s paint marks and almost shake his hand.”)

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During a press visit at the Parisian Hauser & Wirth earlier this month, Eisenman explained that she works between two Brooklyn-based studios, for painting and sculpture respectively, reflecting her “bifurcated practice.” The spaces are a seven-minute bike ride apart, but she is not zig-zagging between them: “When I’m making paintings, I don’t tend to go to the sculpture studio for six, eight months. And then when I’m making sculpture, the paintings go into the attic and I lock the door and I don’t pay attention to that. It goes back and forth, usually six or eight months on, flip-flopping.”

Directly greeting the visitor as they step into Hauser & Wirth’s ground floor is Archangel (The Visitors), an imposing painting that Eisenman started last summer. “It’s gone through a few iterations before arriving at this one. And I’m not sure I’m totally done with it either—there may be more.” The canvas depicts the opening of an exhibition of sculptures, with, overhead, a “military looking animal hanging down, which is inspired by a sculpture that I’ve been obsessed with for a very long time… by two Dada artists called [John] Heartfield and [Rudolf] Schlichter.”

Those artists showed Prussian Archangel, a pig-headed mannequin in a World War I outfit suspended from the ceiling, at the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920. As fascist politics rise—France is still reeling from the omnipresence of the far right in the recent European elections, followed by round one of the snap elections—the painting is a queasy harbinger of what looms.

Installation view, ‘Nicole Eisenman. with, and, of, on Sculpture’ at Hauser & Wirth Paris, 5 June –21 September 2024. © Nicole Eisenman. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.Photo: Nicolas Brasseur

The figures in Archangel (The Visitors), milling between sculptures, feature people the artist knows and people she made up; the visitors in the rear of the painting entering the space were inspired by attendees of the Degenerate Art exhibition, a show masterminded by Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party in Munich in 1937. Eisenman stated: “The painting acts as a kind of parentheses of this period between the Dada art show and the Degenerate Art show—which took much of that work and reframed it as degenerate.”

Neighboring this unsettling work is Eisenman’s partial but still large-scale installation Procession (2019), which premiered in an even larger form at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. (Upstairs, a preparatory study for the installation is on view.) It was part of a colossal composition sprawled across a terrace at the Whitney, inspired by mass protests. From the excerpt on view here, which cuts across the entire ground floor, Eisenman remarked that the leader’s fists may be in the air, but it’s “not such a strong fist—kind of a tired fist that needs help.”

Nicole Eisenman, Drawing for Procession, 2018, Charcoal and decal on paper, 114.9 x 326.4 cm / 45 1/4 x 128 1/2 in. Photo: Sarah Muehlbauer © Nicole EisenmanCourtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

However, she noted that “it’s interesting for me to see this piece taken out of that grouping… it becomes less about the protests and a little bit more personal—how couples behave.” Here, she laughed. “At some point, you have to pull the other person along, or the other person’s a weight… persevering and slogging through, trudging together.”

Nearby are bright, much less representational paintings, Shape Driven Head 1-3, which Eisenman links, process-wise, as hewing more closely to her sculptural practice. She cited John Chamberlain as a meaningful equivalent: “how he makes pieces of metal smushed together—I think about this kind of process. With painting, it’s a matter of layering: of addition and subtraction.”

This is very different from how she created Archangel (The Visitors), where “there’s really a lot of plotting. It’s related to a process that’s probably more like a fiction writer, how a fiction writer would construct a narrative.” She discussed how a preparatory collage study, on view upstairs, was helpful and formative in graphing that plot: “I can move things around and decide what’s where. It’s kind of like an analog version of Photoshop, where you can have things move around and change sizes without having to redraw the whole thing every time. It’s like a really utilitarian drawing.”

Nicole Eisenman, The Artist at Work, 2023, Oil on canvas, diptych, 148 x 223.5 x 3.2 cm / 58 1/4 x 88 x 1 1/4 in (overall). Photo: Sarah Muehlbauer © Nicole EisenmanCourtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

One floor up, a variety of media are on display, everything from an artist’s book called “Alt Faces,” to a plaster bust of faux Gallic sophistication (Dame Francaise Chic), to a bronze sculpture (Mad Cat) topped with a helmet made from the seat of a custom Herman Miller chair, to an oil painting announcing raw squiggly CUBIST FEMALE INNARDS in all caps, to an amusing pencil drawing about life in Eisenman’s studio (an orbit of cartoon bursts including a lightbulb of insight, demarcations for internet breaks and a despondent list of NO IDEAS, BAD IDEAS, DUMB IDEAS and OLD IDEAS).

Eisenman’s ability to make at once uncanny sculptures, iconographic drawings and politically powerful paintings yields a complex ensemble. Time and again, she is a maestro at mixing malaise and playfulness and astute observations about human fallibility.

New Nicole Eisenman Work Debuts in Paris Parallel to Her MCA Show