Although Nicole Eisenman’s solo show The Kiss consisted almost entirely of recent works on paper (with two exceptions, the drawings and paintings date from the last four years) it offered an overview of those aspects that have shaped the form and content of her queer-punk brand of ‘bad painting’. The large-format Nachbarschaft Polizeistaat (Neighbourhood Police State, 1995), for example, is an exuberant, chaotic line drawing showing the kind of mass scene typical of her work, in this case in an anonymous American city. Swimmer (2015), on the other hand, addresses the theme of seeing and being seen with an expressive portrait of a swimmer whose eyes are covered by a huge pair of goggles. There were also several self-portraits, including Self-Portrait at Night (2015) that shows the artist – painted in a crude, naïve manner – reading a book by Anna Freud. Day’s End (2015), meanwhile, is a near-realistic rendering of Eisenman on a bed, with one tower of the World Trade Center visible through the background window. In the deliberately naïve picture Cave Women (2015), the role of women in society is called into question: ironically presented in the style of cave painting, it shows two women sitting outside an entrance to a cave.
Eisenman’s typically irreverent play of art-historical components and pop-cultural styles was also featured, for example in the drawing The Kiss (2015): with obvious deliberation, she draws two kissing figures in a surrealist style reminiscent of Max Ernst. Le Kiss Deux (2015), meanwhile, shows the same motif, this time as a skewed hybrid of Jean Dubuffet and the late Picasso. Superhero (2015) deploys the characteristic formalidiom of (underground) comics. And Tea Party (2015), in turn, uses the style of the political caricature: at the centre is a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes, held by a dark-suited manager, a grim-faced, one-legged outlaw and Death in the guise of a skeleton. All three stand almost knee-deep in water: the American dream, about to go under.
This last work also underscores the show’s problem: with its wilfully zany iconography, Eisenman’s terse visual critique of the former superpower is showing its age. The picture idea and its often calculatedly dilettantish execution is not funny to me, nor does it encapsulate the ‘kick in the ass’ spirit once attributed to Eisenman’s art by her fellow painter and kindred soul, Amy Sillman. Instead, a drawing like Tea Party appears slightly formal, perhaps even striking a younger generation as inadvertently academic, as its iconography, familiar from left-wing political magazines or comics, has become a cliché integrated into the over-used vocabulary of supposedly dilettantish ‘bad painting’. Moreover, the motif of the ‘unholy trinity’ lacks analytical force; Eisenman simply asserts the demise of the former superpower, but without linking this to any kind of political argument. This ‘kick-ass art’ has long entered art history and now merely reinforces its own tradition.
This problem affected the exhibition as a whole: conceptually, it contented itself with presenting a collection of pictures reflecting the key elements of Eisenman’s oeuvre. Although the result is an almost retrospective overview (using recent works), this is achieved at the cost of any meaningful focus in terms of content in which Eisenman’s art (to quote Sillman again) might once more develop a ‘riotous unpredictability’.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell