In Coping FIG.1 by Nicole Eisenman (b.1965), a host of figures wade through a waist-high deluge of mud. Some – such as the woman in a smart green coat, protectively clutching her handbag to her side – are bent forwards at a slight angle, eyes downcast, ploughing on. A pallid man clasping a takeaway coffee cup, a naked woman, a besuited man, a cyclist, a diminutive police officer, a cat transporting a budgie on its head and a figure encased in bandages: all push through the sludge with despondent determination. One, however, seems oblivious to the difficulties posed by the swirling substance. This figure is more realistically and finely modelled than the others, who are loose and strangely hued by comparison, variably recalling the paintings of James Ensor, Edvard Munch and Gabriele Münter. Clad in a bowler hat, a white shirt and red braces, the figure takes a drag on a cigarette pinched between thumb and forefinger, while their other hand is stuffed into a pocket that is surely flooded with mud. Their stasis is highlighted by the convergence of a shit-coloured vortex around their thighs, which might signal danger if their nonchalance did not appear to outweigh any potential threat.
In front of an overturned car a mother clasps a newborn baby, while a man points his finger, seemingly directing her away from the safety of the green mountains behind them and further into the torrent. This trio is, in fact, the artist, her daughter George, and her father, an ‘old-school’ psychiatrist with whom she had a complex relationship.1 The tableau-like scene is set among a confluence of fifteenth-century architecture, commercial awnings and Brutalist tower blocks. Eisenman’s final touches to the painting were a series of brown impasto smears, which resemble clouds of faecal matter. The work was made in direct response to the re-election of President George W. Bush in the United States in 2004 – ‘us walking through this big, sludgy mud pile’ – and marked a clear turning point in the artist’s practice, towards more outward-looking, sociopolitical themes (p.11).2 In Eisenman’s retrospective What Happened at Whitechapel Gallery, London, Coping is positioned at the far end of the downstairs gallery, preceding the staircase to the upper floors. This placement allows the painting to act as a fulcrum of sorts – a pivot around which the rest of the exhibition turns.
First shown at Museum Brandhorst, Munich, in 2023, What Happened includes over one hundred works made between 1992 and 2022, and demonstrates the impressive breadth of Eisenman’s output in subject-matter, style and discipline. The artist first came to prominence in the 1990s for her blue-toned paintings FIG.2, drawing installations and large-scale temporary murals. These works are characterised by introspective and personal politics, often focusing on the lifestyles, frustrations and fantasies of her lesbian community in New York, as well as the alienating predicament of being an artist. Beginning with this early period, What Happened is, for the most part, organised chronologically, culminating in painted allegories of contemporary America, notably the fraught political landscape surrounding the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Indeed, the exhibition shares its title with Hilary Clinton’s memoir that dissects her experiences as Trump’s presidential opponent.
The exhibition is divided into seven chapters, the majority of which are titled after an individual work – such as Coping – to illustrate a particular artistic development or timeframe. The first, ‘1990s’, brings together numerous paintings and drawings from this formative decade. Recalling her solo exhibition at Jack Tilton Gallery, New York, in 1994, one wall is plastered with an assortment of unframed drawings, photographs, magazine pages, posters and dismembered plastic toys FIG.3 FIG.4. Here, a printed advertisement for Replens, a ‘long-lasting solution’ for vaginal dryness, is pinned underneath a scratchy ink drawing of a person wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘SHITFACED AGAIN’. There are drawings of cats; attempts at Pablo Picasso’s signature; writhing female bodies, caught in endless modes of embracing, kissing, licking and fucking; and a version of Leda and the Swan in which the swan’s head disappears completely into her vagina. Nearby, drawings have also spilled over onto the gallery architecture, freshly applied to the pillars like marginalia FIG.5.
After Eisenman graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1987, she moved to New York, where she worked as an illustrator and trompe-l’œil painter, creating marble effects in hotels and murals in the interiors of shops. This experience fed directly into her studio practice when, in 1992, she was invited by Ann Philbin to participate in the group exhibition Wall Drawings at the Drawing Center, New York. From then until 2003 Eisenman produced a number of expansive wall murals, all of which were painted over and erased after being exhibited. Queering this monumental format, the artist drew from a range of sources, including cartoons, pornography, Renaissance and Baroque battle scenes and the Federal Art Project in the United States. These fantastical works mirthfully critiqued the art world and patriarchal society, often showing self-sufficient communities of women who attack, castrate and even ingest men. As Collier Schorr noted in a review of Eisenman’s solo exhibition at Trial Balloon, New York, in 1993, such works also ridiculed pervasive discrimination against lesbians by presenting ‘the cock-chopping psycho dyke incarnate, a caricature born of a homophobic nightmare’.3
As Eisenman’s murals were temporary, they are here represented in a fourteen-minute film commission by friend and fellow artist Ryan McNamara (b.1979) titled What Happened: The Movie (2023). As the camera pans over grainy documentary photographs of each mural, they are activated by a script that mimics the language of local news stories, incorporating imagined dialogues, live ‘on-the-scene’ reporting and advertising jingles. Lesbian Kissing Booth (1993), for example, which depicted a chaotic crowd of people clambering to visit the titular booth – ‘TRY IT OUT, HOT BABES’ – is accompanied by a dispatch that is constantly revised by the presenter, so that it spirals further and further into absurdity. ‘As you can see behind me, these lesbians are performing oralingus for money. Didn’t sound right, let me redo it. These dykes are first-basing it for bucks. One more time. These butch Brendas are planting puddly pecks for pay’, and so on it goes. The video is overtly ludicrous, delivered through a multitude of characters, and its inanity only heightens the acerbic humour in Eisenman’s murals; its silliness never detracts from its seriousness.
In the 2000s Eisenman redirected her focus from her immediate community and own position as an artist to a more global outlook. As indicated by the title of this chapter of the exhibition, Coping is at the forefront of this development, epitomising the artist’s ability to translate specific sociopolitical circumstances into scenes that retain a universal humanism. At this juncture, one also becomes aware of a stylistic change in Eisenman’s paintings. Whereas in earlier works, such as Hunting (2000) and Fishing FIG.6, bodies are rendered in a purely crystalline manner, paintings of this period adopt multiple styles. Although they still often rely on crisp figurative modelling, they also incorporate expressionist brushstrokes, rough impasto and the fluid, cartoon-like nature of her drawings. The heterogeneity that previously manifested across multiple works of art – from one to the next – is now consolidated within a single canvas. In The Triumph of Poverty FIG.7, for example, which was prompted by the 2008 financial crash, characters are rendered in different styles as though to emphasise their alienation or difference from one another. The blinded banker, caught with his trousers down, is depicted in thin layers of yellow paint that retain their brushmarks; two anxious-looking figures in the back of the car are executed thickly, their features indicated by rough daubs; and the woman behind the wheel of the car is a Frankensteinish patchwork of textures and applications.
This approach continues in paintings shown upstairs, such as The Drawing Class (2011), in which each character is not only carried out in a different figurative style, but is copied from previous paintings by the artist, defying any unification of perspective, time or place. The following section, ‘Screen, Sex and Solitude’, is dedicated to paintings that explore the impact of handheld technology on our social and emotional lives. Perhaps unusually, Eisenman does not critique an overdependence on smartphones or computers and their ability to simultaneously connect and alienate. Rather, she seeks to document how screens can facilitate intimacy and relaxation. In Morning Studio FIG.8 an exacting replica of a Mac desktop is shown projected onto a wall, its familiar default galaxy wallpaper creating a serene backdrop to a lounging embrace between an artist and her partner. Immediately recognisable icons line the bottom of the screen, and files and folders are ordered on the desktop: one labelled ‘Ridyke’ references Ridykeulous, the curatorial initiative that Eisenman formed with the artist A.L. Steiner (b.1967) in 2005, whereas ‘George’ and ‘Freddy’ are titled after her two children.4 Almost comically tantalising are the folders named ‘Secret Journal’, ‘Read This’ and ‘Words’. Thus, in Morning Studio privacy and proximity are closely entwined, presenting the delicate balance between what humans might give away to one another and what they might give instead to technology.
It is at this point in the exhibition that the chronological arrangement is interrupted, with a section dedicated to ‘Heads’. Although this room is the most coherent in motif – as Eisenman remarked, ‘when you can’t think of what to draw; draw a head’ – it is also the most diverse in medium, encompassing prints, foam and metal reliefs, drawings, paintings and sculptures FIG.9.5 Here the artist’s relentlessly inventive formalism is inescapable. Each sculpted head boasts multiple textures and materials, some of which appear to still be oozing out of armatures and crevices. Found objects are buried inside gaping holes and plinths deviate from the common white pedestal, taking on new shapes and materials: in one case, an intricately carved wooden crate balances on top of three logs. One sculptural head is also a working fountain – the sound of trickling water filters into the following section, ‘The Darkward Trail’, which includes a series of paintings made in the wake of Trump’s election. There is an abject, grotesque quality to many of these sculptures, which seem to translate the fetid atmosphere of Coping and The Triumph of Poverty into three-dimensional form.
Eisenman’s sculptural practice has developed largely over the last decade; as Joe Scotland notes in his short text in the exhibition catalogue, when he invited her to create a new body of work for an exhibition at Studio Voltaire, London, in 2012, it was a surprise when she produced, in-situ, a wholly sculptural installation.6 It is fitting, then, that the exhibition concludes with Maker’s Muck FIG.10, a vast, kinetic sculptural self-portrait, in which an unrecognisable figure of the artist is hunched over a potter’s wheel. A hump of clay revolves under her fingers, which never seem to imprint or alter the surface. Maquettes for Eisenman’s sculptures, such as Procession (2019) and Love and Generosity (2021), surround the maker, alongside discarded artist’s tools, flatbreads and globules of clay.7 Maker’s Muck acts as a sort of retrospective within a retrospective, presenting Eisenman’s career as a microcosm for our easy consumption. But while the viewer walks away, the artist is left to turn the wheel, caught in a constant state of unproductive production.
In Self-Portrait with Exploded Whitney (1995), one of the murals that she created for the 1995 Whitney Biennial, Eisenman positioned herself amid a blasted-out museum. Surrounded by casualties, reporters, first responders, looters and the detritus of thousands of works of art, she sits unnoticed on a scaffold in front of a white wall, continuing to work on a mural. In McNamara’s video, the voiceover details the long list of artistic losses at the ‘Blitney Fluseum of Slamerican Quart’: ‘Pollock, pulverised; Flavin, flattened; LeWitt, levelled; Smithson, smashed; Judd, jammed’. But, the voice concludes in surprise, ‘somehow Eisenman – Nicole Eisenman – has come out unscathed’. Of course, this image was never just about dogged artistic commitment, but rather a parodic acknowledgment of the biennale format and Eisenman’s precarious place within it. Nonetheless, thirty years later, it is hard not to think of Eisenman in this way: as an artist who, amid the circus and chaos, tears through with fearless experimentation, always emerging unscathed.