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Artist’s genius is made official with MacArthur Grant


Nicole Eisenman photo courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Nicole Eisenman

Nicole Eisenman graduated Scarsdale High School in 1983. Her parents still live in Greenacres, and Westchester Reform Temple exhibited some of her paintings last year. Eisenman is a world-renowned artist, and was just awarded a 2015 MacArthur Foundation Grant, otherwise known as the “genius grant,” for her work as a painter and sculptor.

“It was just another day,” Eisenman said about getting the phone call telling her of the Fellowship grant award, “and then everything changed.” She was buying bacon at the market at the time. “It’s tricky to compute. A lot of people deserve this grant, and I’m just lucky enough to be someone who actually got it,” she said. “It gives me an extra boost of confidence just to go forth and do what I’ve been trying to do my whole life.”

Success came to Eisenman early on in her career. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design with an M.F.A. in painting in 1987, “things happened really quickly for me in the early ’90s,” she told the Inquirer in a previous interview. “Before that I made my way doing odd jobs, illustrations. I had various jobs, tried to make my art on weekends and at night. Once I started showing, things happened very quickly.”

After an early two-person show at the Franklin Furnace and a show at the Drawing Center in SoHo, Eisenman was picked up by the Jack Tilton Gallery in New York and the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles.

“All of this happened in 1992,” Eisenman said. “I got a big review in the Village Voice which brought a lot of attention to my work. Between my coming out in the art world and the first [Whitney Museum 1995] Biennial was very quick.”

Eisenman’s work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions at landmarks that include the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Kunsthalle Zurich and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany. She was recently the subject of a mid-career survey at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, “Dear Nemesis: Nicole Eisenman 1993-2014.” Her work was also featured in Manifesta 10 at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. She was awarded the 2014 Anonymous Was A Woman Award and the Carnegie Prize for the 2013 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, and she has participated in two Whitney Museum biennials.

Her work is noted for expanding the expression of the Western figurative form, painting people and human themes in ways that are in turn vivid, baffling, funny, disturbing, bold and gorgeous. “I draw from the world around me,” she said in a video interview with the MacArthur Foundation. “I pull my friends and family into my paintings. Sometimes I paint the world as I want it to be.” Over the course of nearly four decades, she has worked across various media — paint, sculpture, drawing and printmaking.

She describes her painting process as an alchemy of the physical, the emotional, and magic. “I think the external world filters into my work. All the themes are in there because I’m taking everything in: politics, history, my personal life, my feelings,” she told the foundation.

Eisenman lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn: “I love living in Brooklyn.” She likes the regularity of her work, getting up early to get her two children, daughter George and son Freddy, to school, then opening her studio at 9 a.m. She usually works alone, but for an assistant that comes in once a week to help with administrative tasks. “If I’m lucky, someone will come over and have lunch with me, and I work until 6 or 7 p.m. Then it’s out on the town. I love the idea of punching the clock. I love thinking of myself that way, as a worker.”

While she loves the structure of her workdays, Eisenman also notes that work often feels more like vacation to her: “I had two great aunts that were painters, and grew up in a house full of their art. That’s always what I’ve wanted to do.”

Working and raising her own children in New York now, she noted: “I realize how lucky I was to grow up in Scarsdale, where we were all roving bands of kids on the streets, running in gangs, traipsing through backyards. The landscape felt very open, more open than now, which seems to require lots of supervision. But that freedom gave us a sense of confidence in moving through the world.”

In high school, she was a student in the Alternative School, played field hockey and lacrosse, painted school murals and was the art editor of her Yearbook. “I was also resigned to not presenting myself as anything I wasn’t. I was a hopeless case: I wasn’t going to run with the fast crowd, so I didn’t even try.” Instead, Eisenman took advantage of Metro North, spending free time in New York City. “I was pulled in that direction, I wanted to see what was happening outside of Scarsdale.”

When asked what captures her mind these days, she answered, “I use my friends as my muses.” With Grace Dunham (sister of Lena), she is making small books for friends they share in common. “There aren’t a lot of people on that list, but this sort of project keeps me grounded. I’m lucky to have them.”

Eisenman is still letting the award settle into her psyche, and has no plans for the moment of anything beyond continuing her work for a May show at New York City’s Anton Kern Gallery. “I don’t want the money to change the particulars, like the scale of my work. I’m comfortable with the scale right now.”

And she regularly brings her children back to Scarsdale, letting them run loose in Greenacres Field, though her parents now feel it necessary to supervise them. Kay Eisenman is the retired village trustee, and her father Sheldon is a psychiatrist. Do her parents feel that the MacArthur Foundation has validated what they always knew, that their daughter is a genius? “It was a good one to bring home to Mom and Dad.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


October 2, 2015