Every Nicole Eisenman Picture Tells a Story

She then said of the painting with the barren trees, “I have a sketch of a guy falling off a ladder, and I have a sketch of a girl popped off a bike. They were separate drawings.” Sometime in the fall of 2019, she joined them in a single sketch. She recalled “a mode of thinking when you’re arranging bodies to make a shape, and realism is beside the point.” She continued, “I mean, it has to nod toward reality, but it’s more important that her arms are reaching toward the figure on the ground. The narrative makes the body have to be a certain way. In that way, it’s like dance, a little bit.” In her description, the image became “this disaster happening, and a kind of romance inside this disaster.”

Eisenman and Prickett first met, briefly, in the middle of 2019, at an Artforum event in New York. Prickett, who is in her thirties, told me how much she was drawn to Eisenman, and then described Eisenman’s wardrobe: “She was dressed like a soccer coach. Sneakers, a windbreaker, possibly a fleece pant even.” At the time, Prickett, who has often written for Artforum—and who generated her own magazine coverage when she ran Adult, an erotically oriented magazine—was living with her husband in Los Angeles. By last spring, she and Eisenman had become a couple, and when the city began to close down, in March, she moved in. Soon after, Eisenman described the satisfactions of their early pandemic—“She’s so smart, she’s such a fabulous cook”—and then felt bad to be talking about her happiness. She had begun a painting, smaller and simpler than the others then under way, of a shirtless woman, painted in a bold red outline, clipping long fingernails. “Sarah’s new to all this lesbian stuff,” Eisenman explained, when we first spoke on the phone. (Prickett later said that this wasn’t quite true.) In the image, Eisenman said, Prickett’s “fingernail is flying off and it’s making what looks like a Nike swoosh.” Eisenman called the painting “Just do it. (Sarah Nicole).”

To paint the cyclist’s stance, Eisenman worked in part from posed photographs of Prickett. Eisenman also photographed Roeck, to help with the ladder figure. But, she noted, “the guy is wearing my shoes, and has short dark hair.” Eisenman acknowledges elements of self-portraiture throughout her work; she sees herself, for example, in the man on the zigzag path. This doesn’t extend to every image—her work isn’t “a Jungian dream world,” she said. But, in the case of the ladder figure, “that could be me—tweak a few genes and that’s me.” (As Prickett told me, the figure is also François Leterrier, the French actor and director. Eisenman downloaded photographs of him after she and Prickett watched him in Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped.”)

And so the collision painting, which, Eisenman said, “had started before I had any inkling that Sarah and I were going to be together,” became about her and Prickett. Or, at least, it became the source of a shared joke for the way that it seemed to capture the moment: “She was getting divorced. This turmoil on one side, and this lovely thing on the other.” The painting is also “very her in tone,” Eisenman said. “She’s a very romantic person—and dramatic. She loves drama.”

I first met Prickett in person in June, in Washington Square Park, at the end of an upstart alternative to New York’s annual Pride parade, the Queer Liberation March, which focussed last year on themes of racial justice. She and Eisenman were sitting on the grass with friends; a few minutes earlier, N.Y.P.D. officers had thrown themselves into one part of the march, in a way that had reminded Eisenman of jacked-up crowd-divers at hardcore concerts in the nineties. On the lawn, Eisenman, who had recently begun sketching studies for a painting depicting the Occupy City Hall encampment, then still in place, was wearing a “Black Dykes Matter” T-shirt. She was in a half-serious discussion with David Velasco, the editor of Artforum, about whether she should accept the gift of a tablet of Adderall, the prescription amphetamine, to see how it might affect her productivity. Prickett objected—playfully, but not entirely so. “Baby,” she said. “Everyone takes Adderall to be like you! You are stealing valor!”

Later, in a phone call, Prickett recalled an evening in the spring when Eisenman had talked of being frustrated with the color of the sky in the bicycle painting: “I said, ‘Get the color of a pink wool blanket—a woollen pink, kind of dusty.’ ” Eisenman, who’s better known for greenish yellows, browns, and saturated reds than for what could be called Philip Guston pink, took the advice, and was happy with the result, although, Prickett said, she complained that the sky now looked too much like the work of the German artist Neo Rauch. Prickett added that Eisenman had described the bicycle painting as “by far the most heterosexual painting I’ve ever made.”

“He’s a rescue.”Cartoon by Jon Adams

At one point, Prickett sent me a long, wry e-mail that teased Eisenman a little for some magical habits of mind—Eisenman had just described “the ghost of a German artist who sits on her shoulder when she paints and says which colors to use.” Prickett also observed, “Great artists are not often mothers, or when they are they are not seen to be maternal. Nicole looks less maternal than she is, perhaps, in larger part because of her profession and in smaller part because of ‘how she presents,’ as they say in gender studies. Even a dad can be a mother—I guess I knew that but didn’t get it.” She went on, “How is it that she works and produces greatness and supports her children and is friends with her ex-wife and sees her mother once a week and goes on vacation with her girlfriend and reads and thinks and participates in civic life and responds to all her messages and helps raise funds for a hundred causes and relaxes. . . . Maybe I am still too embarrassingly wowed by adulthood.”

In her studio, Eisenman looked at the trees in the bicycle painting. “I was thinking about this yesterday,” she said. “Why are they so representational? Why did I do that? And I think it was, after having not painted for two years, I forgot that there’s another way. I forgot the lessons of my own work.” Not every element in a painting has to have the same level of realism. One person can have an Andy Capp nose. “It’s interesting to hear myself making excuses for painting like this,” she continued. “I also like it! I like making pictures that I like. I like the mood that arises out of the paint.” That mood—which includes the possibility that the disaster may overwhelm the romance—wasn’t in the early sketches. In the painting, she said, “they’re both potentially hurt. This could be the second his head hits the ground before it cracks open. You don’t see the blood spilling out.” She was laughing. “We don’t know if he’s O.K. He could not be.”

One morning in July, Eisenman was sitting on the deck of a shared summer-rental house in the Pines, on Fire Island. Prickett was indoors, preparing chilled cucumber soup, following a recipe that Sylvia Plath once mentioned in a letter. Other housemates came and went, talking of the size of the waves that day, and which movie from the eighties they should watch that evening. Eisenman asked one of them, her friend Matt Wolf, a documentary filmmaker, “Did I ever tell you that my mother says that she babysat for Amy Irving?” She also described an experience from early childhood: “I remember getting on a chair and seeing the top of my dresser and being, ‘What? There’s a whole fucking world up here? There’s all this stuff I didn’t know about?’ ”

In the shade, by the pool, Eisenman talked a little about her father. “Intellectually, he was really there for me,” she said. When she studied art theory, at risd, he read some of the books she was assigned—Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer—so that they could discuss the course. “And I loved talking to him about psychiatry, and his patients.” She later added, “He really had a gift for analysis and interpreting dreams, so it was fun to talk to him about my work.” The work seems to imagine, as an ideal viewer, someone with her father’s interpretive gifts, and she is readier than many artists to offer analysis of her own imagery, with only so much eye-rolling. She called one survey show “Al-ugh-gories.”

After she returned home at the end of her sophomore year, her girlfriend, a Brown student, wrote to her, and the letter included the description of a dream. Sheldon Eisenman saw the letter in her bedroom, read it, and interpreted the dream. This was how Eisenman came out to her family.

“My father was an old-school psychiatrist who thought that being gay was a mental disease,” Eisenman said. “His first response was ‘I saw this letter, and you have to get away from this person. She’s really dangerous.’ And I’m, like, ‘She’s just a lesbian!’ ” Eisenman went on, “He was a fucking nightmare. By the time he was done with me, I hated the whole idea of being gay.” (She corrected herself: “I didn’t hate it. I had a complicated relationship to being gay.”)

At the end of that summer, Eisenman began a year of studying abroad, in Rome. Being in Italy “felt like an awakening,” she recalled. “Just being that much in images all of the time.” She later showed me a sketchbook from the trip: receipts saved as souvenirs, paragraphs of self-examination, marginal cartoon doodles, beautifully fluid ink drawings of statues and buildings. (When I spoke to Joan Busing, Eisenman’s art teacher in Westchester County, she had a volume of selected works by her former student open in front of her, and remarked on similar juxtapositions. “One page, this wonderful, almost Tintoretto style,” she said. “The next has a hand with a finger cut off and the caption ‘Oh shit.’ ”) Dana Prescott, who ran risd’s program in Rome when Eisenman was there, recalled, “She was totally cool. She had that short, dark shank of black hair. She was thin as a stick.” Eisenman was “a tiny bit aloof,” but it was clear that “she was digesting it all, especially Renaissance art—anything sequential, any storytelling, really spoke to her.”

Against the background of this immersion, Eisenman’s father was running a campaign against her sexuality. “I would get a fat envelope of legal-size paper, his writing front and back, just making a case for why it was dangerous and bad and ruining my life,” she said. “It was such a fucked-up thing to do. And then you can see his tears on the page, the ink running.” Eisenman laughed. “It was really hard. I always felt like I had to read the letters. I should have just thrown them out.” She was ill-equipped to fight back. “I knew he was wrong, but it got in my head,” she said. “I didn’t know enough. I was too young. Pre-Internet, I didn’t know where to look to find the writing I needed.”

Eisenman said of her father, “It was just this one thing, which was a big thing. It really fucked our shit up.” She added, “My mom saw it, and she didn’t intervene.” (When Eisenman and I were in Scarsdale, later that week, her mother said, “When Nicky came out as gay, I totally blamed myself. And I felt absolutely crushed. It really was very hard.”)

“But, you know, all of that fed my work in the early nineties,” Eisenman said. “It was really about visibility, and a big ‘Fuck you’ to the patriarchy—namely, him.” She checked herself. “It was not just him. It was all of culture, it was my education. I was going to risd and reading Janson”—H. W. Janson’s “History of Art”—“and it was this thick, and there wasn’t one woman in the entire book. I didn’t read anything about feminism at risd. I had to catch up on that stuff, you know, over the years, on my own.”

Eisenman moved to New York immediately after graduation, in 1987. “It was grunge culture, and it was druggy, and it was lesbian,” she said. “It was really fun.” She soon took the job doing faux-finish marbling; some of her handiwork survives today in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel, on Fifth Avenue. (A little later, she was hired to paint murals, in a socialist-realist style, in Coach stores.) At night, she was making ink drawings of lesbian bars, and creating comics “that were kind of sexy and violent and funny and weird.” She thought of herself as “a tough little fucker, romping around the city.”

When Eisenman first started showing her work, in small group shows, she contributed not ink drawings but paintings—work in the vein of the people-on-the-beach pastel that she recently tried to throw away. In 1992, for the first time, she showed a few of her drawings, including one, she recalled, that involved “a fantasy of this island of Amazons capturing men and cutting off penises.” Ann Philbin, then the director of the Drawing Center, in SoHo, saw that work, and, during a subsequent visit to Eisenman’s studio, picked out of the trash—and praised—a drawing of Wilma and Betty, the “Flintstones” characters, having sex. Eisenman told me that she had tossed it out for being “silly, too obvious.” In a key early boost to her career, Philbin invited Eisenman to make a mural for a group show, “Wall Drawings.” Eileen Myles, writing a decade later, recalled Eisenman’s arrival, very late, at that show’s opening: “She wore a black shirt, her hair was kind of Wildean and awkwardly she was carrying a red rose.” The rose, Myles wrote, was “pure punk.”

Not long afterward, Eisenman was taken up by the Jack Tilton gallery, and began to make some money. She recalled that it sometimes amused Tilton to notice the limits of her punkishness: whenever she was introduced to collectors and others with power, “the Scarsdale would show,” and she’d be extraordinarily deferential. Tilton could see the advantage of a persona that was less civil (or more Tracey Emin). He once said, “Be meaner! Be meaner!”

Eisenman called this painting, “Destiny Riding Her Bike” (2020), “very romantic—a Douglas Sirk film still.” Yet both figures, she noted, are “potentially hurt—this could be the second his head hits the ground before it cracks open.”Art work courtesy Thomas Widerberg / Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, Norway

Eisenman told me, “There’s another part to the story that gets a bit dark,” and brought up, for the first time, the subject of her drug addiction. She explained that Victoria Robinson had, the previous week, accidentally hinted at this history to the children, and that George, their daughter, then thirteen, had asked Eisenman to explain. Now that the matter had been aired within the family, Eisenman said, it should be included in our conversations.