PRINT February 2023


Nicole Eisenman, Swimmers in the Lap Lane (detail), 1995, oil on canvas, 51 × 39".

THERE ARE HISTORICAL MOMENTS that transform the industry standard, and sometimes they have deep, traceable roots. An opportunity to understand this process is provided by an exhibition of artist Nicole Eisenman’s work opening in March at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst. Curated by Monika Bayer-Wermuth and Mark Godfrey, the show, especially its revisitation of startlingly explicit lesbian works from the 1990s, will allow viewers to enjoy Eisenman’s beautiful, widely appreciated, and highly valued artworks. The fifty-seven-year-old, French-born, New York–raised painter, sculptor, and creator of wild, passionate murals and drawings has taken a bad-boy, oppositional, and sometimes dramatically risky path to becoming one of the world’s most successful living artists. Somehow, the seas parted and—at times in spite of herself—Eisenman has thrived, has been approved of, and is now in some ways iconic. Beyond the quality of her work, how did it happen that exclusionary criteria that kept a range of lesbian imagery out of the mainstream were lifted?

There is a minuscule but real possibility for individuals to achieve enormous success in the visual arts. As in all aspects of dysfunctional and profoundly inequitable societies dominated by distorted hierarchical power structures, most gifted artists don’t have the visibility they deserve and are far away from financial survival and from being seen by enough people to generate influence. While many artists are defeated by a triage system reliant on the economic and spiritual deprivations of obscurity, some people, amazingly, persist, often because of combinations of inner strength, devotion to their craft, belief in the quality of their contribution, and an indestructible hope that the intrinsic value of their work will one day be allowed to surface. When Eisenman began to create for public display, it was impossible for confrontationally sexual, possibly threatening, and erotically ecstatic lesbian art to be viable in the marketplace. And yet this is the impulse she followed, perhaps due to obsession, indifference to reception, or pure energy superseding business concerns. There is a phenomenon to Eisenman, Catherine Opie, Zoe Leonard, and other bold, honest, and commercially successful artists on the transitional front line whose work contains overt lesbian and queer female content. While this content, in any other era, would have led to underground and underfinanced art lives, for reasons of dramatic social change, their own skills, and luck, these artists got away with it big time. They made what they wanted and the world changed around them so that their work could be appreciated for its achievements and on its own terms.

Nicole Eisenman, Alice in Wonderland, 1996, ink on paper, 51 × 39".

Eisenman did not rely exclusively on the trappings that had both permitted and encased the lesbian artist for the century preceding the ’90s: code, sensibility, subtext. Modernism, the refinement of this double queer language, had allowed the lesbian spectator to visually sense the specificities of her emotional and sexual experience while protecting both artist and viewer from the punitive consequences of someone else noticing any of it. And often it protected even the artist herself from the realities of her own unconscious life.

But Eisenman began with the most overt representations imaginable. The elements of Alice in Wonderland in the 1996 painting of that name are wildly specific: the little girl Eisenman never was but perhaps some parent wished her to be. That girl’s successful wish fulfillment, the satiation of her full-throttle desire to eat adult pussy, is something that no one is ever supposed to acknowledge. And yet the girl, usually the object of adult predation, is here the subject, in recognition of childhood fantasy and desires. Rather than the classical adult grooming fantasy, Wonder Woman’s source of triumphant power, in the mind of Alice, the young girl, is the juvenile two-handed girlie orgasm.

Nicole Eisenman, Pagan Guggenheim, 1994, mixed media, 10' 97⁄8“ × 16' 2 7⁄8”.

At the time this piece was made, the assertion of lesbian childhood desire was firmly in place in the underground. In the previous era, all people were assumed to be born heterosexual and cisgender. Homosexuality was attributed to something going wrong, psychologically or biologically. In fact, when the disease that would soon be known as AIDS was first covered in the New York Times, in 1981, society was swirling with pseudoscientific theories of biological “causes” of homosexuality. Today we know that sexuality and gender are different in each person and can change over the course of someone’s life, but at that time, homosexuality was typically seen as one thing and was actually attributed to one biological source, for example, the hypothalamus gland. Feminism theorized lesbian life as somewhere between a choice, an impulse, and a decision, but ’90s lesbian radicality eschewed the causal explanations of both nature and nurture. We just declared ourselves to be. The Lesbian Avengers, a direct-action group founded in 1992 by me, Ana Simo, Maxine Wolfe, Anne-christine d’Adesky, Anne Maguire, and Marie Honan, held our first action at a public school in Middle Village, Queens, that had banned discussion of homosexuality—an earlier rendition of the contemporary “Don’t Say Gay” campaigns. We handed the children balloons on the first day of school that said ask about lesbians, so that by the time they got to the classroom, the first question out of their mouths was “What’s a lesbian?”—thereby de facto disrupting the ban. The group’s follow-up brag featured the slogan “I Was a Lesbian Child.” Dyke TV, cofounded by Simo along with Linda Chapman and Mary Patierno, did a series with the same name featuring photographs of women in their lesbian childhoods. And historian Rachel Corbman has reminded me of Su Friedrich’s 1996 lesbian-childhood film Hide and Seek. So Eisenman’s Alice in Wonderland was certainly part of the new wave of imagining literal lesbian juvenilia being expressed in the lesbian zeitgeist. But now it is displayed in a museum. And is expensive. A big leap from being banned from a classroom to being exhibited in the most prestigious venues in the world.

Nineties lesbian radicality eschewed the causal explanations of both nature and nurture. We just declared ourselves to be.

Nicole Eisenman, Untitled (Lesbian Recruitment Booth), 1992, ink on paper, 24 × 19".

IN THE ’90s, Eisenman made ephemeral works like murals and only some objects that were sold, and her representation—while impressive—was limited. Her first large institutional show was in Zurich in 2007. Making commodity art objects in the private world of the art market is its own monster with its own freedoms and responsibilities. Whom you have to please is very different from when you’re selling lesbian novels, plays, or films, which are produced within, or in the shadow of, mass-oriented industries that have kept this content marginalized and stigmatized. Perhaps that is why the first place overt works by lesbians of color emerged was experimental film, where artists like Cheryl Dunye and Pratibha Parmar made groundbreaking work. Nothing was less commodifiable than experimental film, and so no marketplace was threatened or confronted. The art world, however, is a tiny, high-stakes collection of players, and the general public does not control the rate of sale. Since the male ancients reproduced their naked boyfriends as representations of the gods, queer visual artists have been cheeky and gotten away with it, as long as they pleased those who control the empire’s coffers. How they please, why it pleases, and how it even gets in front of the kings is unknown to me. And exactly what the details were of this backstage of lesbian artists materially working their ways into a historic reconstruction is something I don’t know but would love to learn. The concrete connect-the-dots of any career or real art history is often kept elusive, and we may not get the sanitized front-of-the-house story until many, many years after the fact. Yet historical context can be understood.

Although Eisenman and I are only seven years apart, I emerged as a writer with lesbian content in the late ’70s and first saw her work in the early ’90s. So I can offer a kind of grappling witness of what changes took place that allowed her and her peers to be themselves first and, despite that, to then be embraced by institutions. There have been a number of twentieth-century lesbian heydays: the revolutionary teens; the roaring ’20s; the revolutionary ’30s; the opportunities for travel, industrial salaries, and financial autonomy that World War II produced in the ’40s; the bohemia of the ’50s; the revolutionary ’60s; and the golden years of lesbian overtness, the gay liberation and women’s liberation of the ’70s, the ACT UP ’80s, and the Avenging ’90s. One of the most complex aspects of truly radical moments of change is that they liberate everyone but initially attract the most alienated to their vanguard ranks. As the late activist Donald Suggs Jr. once told me, “The drag queens who started Stonewall made the world safe for gay Republicans. The people who make change aren’t the ones who most benefit from it.” In a sense, there are always martyrs who precede us, who permit us new opportunities. And sometimes, as with lesbian and queer female artists, they are consciously acting on behalf of an imagined future generation whom they may never meet and who are very likely never to turn around and thank or even acknowledge those with less stature and no currency but who made their success possible nonetheless.

Nicole Eisenman, Sluts, 1993, acrylic on poster, 19 3⁄4 × 27 1⁄2".

In the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, the most talented and outrageous minds were attracted to queer things. The more conventional types were still playing the system and playing it safe. I think these earlier adventurers knew that it was career suicide, but they didn’t care—they were compelled. Queer was the most interesting. And lesbian comics already existed by the time Eisenman was old enough to start looking for them. Alison Bechdel began illustrating for the feminist newspaper WomaNews in the early ’80s, though she rarely depicted nudity and certainly not graphic sexuality. Precursor lesbian gallery artists like Deborah Kass, working in relationship to Andy Warhol, used humor and satire that situated lesbian perspective within the history of contemporary art. Eisenman had more prurient inclinations. Probably little Nicole just couldn’t stop drawing naked ladies crawling all over one another. There is an almost compulsive element to the repetitions of these images in her work. Hard-won sexual identity requires a commitment, and as a visual artist she exteriorized the drive, making it formally and content-wise into literal objects. It was . . . well . . . natural!

The devastation of AIDS and the abandonment of PWAs (People With AIDS) by their families and government created a new purpose for the otherwise disparate expression of queer creativity. The combination of the cutting-edge creative commerce of New York’s competitive visual industries (graphic design, advertising, marketing) with the killer competitive culture of New York frontline fine arts contributed an essential component to the interdynamic power of the AIDS activist movement, thereby transforming the epidemic throughout the ’80s and mid-’90s. But this new sense of purpose and the movement it unleashed also transformed the role of the visual arts in queer politics. Art collectives within ACT UP, most notably Gran Fury, made public art that was also agitprop. It was sexually explicit, too. Gran Fury famously created a poster of a large erect penis with the banner slogan men use condoms or beat it. Zoe Leonard was in ACT UP and was part of the creation of a poster showing a woman’s vagina and pubic hair with the text read my lips. Images that today would get someone thrown off social media were wheatpasted on the sides of buildings and on streetlamps in Lower Manhattan and became part of the urban landscape.

Nicole Eisenman, Nice Smell Babe (Charlie the Tuna), 1993, ink on paper, 12 × 9".

In particular, the relationship between overtly sexual queer content and the art market became more intertwined in response to the deaths and illnesses of many artists, dealers, and collectors, but also through a major art auction organized for ACT UP by Patrick Moore (now of Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum) and Ann Philbin (now of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles) and contributed to by a young dealer, Mathew Marks, just cutting his teeth. They raised $600,000 for the organization. Culturally, the familiarity of gay men with lesbian sexual content through the new intimacies of gay men and queer women in the AIDS communities opened many doors, especially in the period between 1987 and 1993, just as Eisenman was emerging professionally. Partnerships like that of film producer Christine Vachon and director Todd Haynes, Larry Kramer’s financial contribution to Maria Maggenti’s film-school tuition, the collaborations between Marlene McCarty and the men of Gran Fury, and the gender-mixed work of Testing the Limits, diva tv, House of Color, Gang, ArtPositive, Action Tours, Church Ladies for Choice, and other art collectives within ACT UP brought the men and women of ACT UP not only into personal, political, and intellectual contact but also deeply into aesthetic relationship. And the queer bisexuality that was an organic part of ACT UP created more knowledge and fewer boundaries. My own thirty-eight-year collaboration with filmmaker Jim Hubbard, in which we created the mix: Queer Experimental Film Festival (founded in 1987, it lasted thirty-three years), was part of the mutual exposure and influence between gay men and women that familiarized both parties with each other’s artistic and representational ideals. Eisenman’s breakthrough gallerist, the late Jack Tilton, while straight, had worked for the legendary lesbian art dealer Betty Parsons (whose lover was at one point Agnes Martin). And of course the prior success of Nan Goldin’s sexually explicit and confrontational works of beauty, as well as her and David Wojnarowicz’s battles with government censorship in the ’80s, hangs over and is partially responsible for the marketplace acceptability of this mid-’90s wave.

Perhaps something about the cataclysm of AIDS, this preexisting queer female history of representation, this hugely creative coming-together of men and women, this unification of the elite, of commerce and talent, of energy and sex, of innovation and commitment—perhaps all of this made things newly possible for a rising generation of lesbian fine artists. It’s not the kind of thing that can be proven, just guessed at. But it appears there was a freedom that somehow was validated.

The discomfort of the body, the juxtaposition of the absurdity of physicality, of relationships, the weird consequences of intimacy—Eisenman took these to conclusions many were afraid to represent.

Nicole Eisenman, Trash’s Dance, 1992, india ink on paper, 22 × 30".

THE AVENGERS’ SLOGAN was “We Recruit,” which was an answer to the early decade’s right-wing Christian accusation that homosexuals “don’t reproduce, they recruit.” In a 1992 work, Eisenman expresses this generational excitement about on-the-street, funny, sexualized visibility. The image shows frumpy housewives in bobs and cotton dresses, carrying bland handbags, waiting on line on a street corner as a megaphone-carrying dyke calls to all women of the city to come get changed. The housewives are slightly grumpy, waiting for their turn to be fucked, caressed, and to have lesbian sex with naked and lusty volunteers there for the purpose of turning lives around. This is not far from the function of the Lesbian Avengers, who actually, topless, pushed a mobile bed down Fifth Avenue in one of the first Dyke Marches, which they originated.

Included in “Part Fantasy,” a 1992 exhibition at the New York venue Trial Balloon that featured seven young lesbian artists (Eisenman, Nicola Tyson, Ellen Cantor, Daphne Fitzpatrick, Elise Dodeles, Eliza Jackson, and G. B. Jones), Eisenman’s black-and-white drawing Trash’s Dance brings to life the earlier lesbian leather photo portraits of the artist then known as Della Grace (now Del La Grace Volcano). Del’s were taken in Scott’s Bar, an underground lesbian leather dive in ’80s San Francisco. Eisenman’s version includes the photos’ leather vest over bare breasts and expands to a community scene that is passionate, in thrall, and very individuated. Trash, a mustached bodybuilder in heels, is dancing on the bar for tips, while the unfazed bartenders keep the beer flowing. Two separated dykes, on barstools, are alone, depressed, and drunk amid the frenzy, while the rest are highly engaged, often in couples. Sex is happening, ass-grabbing, breast-baring, and also convivial conversation. Kissing, fighting, explicating, large, small, butch, femme, happy, sallow. And most important, these lesbians are crowded into a very small space, as was almost always the case in lesbian bars, basically stark and empty rooms to which the women, themselves, brought romance and glamour.

Nicole Eisenman, Captured Pirates on the Island of Lesbos, 1992, watercolor and ink on paper, 22 × 30".

Captured Pirates on the Island of Lesbos, 1992, brings the women outside, into a more ’70s “back to the land” lesbian utopia. They are a lot happier here than in the bar. There is fucking, dancing, and smiling. A castrated man has been sacrificed and tied naked to a stake while his separated penis is being used as a dildo in a female three-way. Another male prisoner, hands bound behind his back, has his still-attached penis laid out on a chopping block awaiting the lesbian-wielded cleaver. The violence against men fulfills the dominant culture’s horror fantasia that lesbians hate men and want to hurt them, as much as it brings to life the positive wish for lesbian revenge (hence the Lesbian Avengers). Despite or perhaps because of it, the women are writhing in joy, desire, and collective ecstatic fulfillment. It is the uplift of revenge.

Untitled (Battle Scene), 1999, is quite different, as a work of art that can only be made by someone who is weary of the privilege of having a subculture to tire of. The ironies of internecine warfare among young, robust women are shown to be both hysterically funny and tragically sad. In talking to trusted friends for this essay, I benefited from the insight of painter Rochelle Feinstein, who is an enthusiastic lover of Eisenman’s art. Feinstein showed me how Battle Scene refers to classical works, to the stylized and romanticized crowded field of young male soldiers at war, to the Greek male nude ideal. In this way the work looks back and ahead at the same time. It is a universe that recasts traditional art-historical images (the sole male-presenting figure appears captive on a white horse) while seizing and subverting their most treasured visual history. It is an orgy and a killing field—the full range of humor, sarcasm, and lament. It’s unclear whether the artist’s decision to make all the figures white was critically motivated.

Nicole Eisenman, Untitled (Battle Scene), 1999, oil on wood panel, 42 7⁄8 × 55 7⁄8".

Thanks to Florrie Burke, the surviving partner of experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer, I was able to view Hammer’s 1998 film The Female Closet, which situates Eisenman alongside other lesbian geniuses like photographer Alice Austin. There, Eisenman’s heroin use is discussed openly by friend Nicola Tyson and critic Laura Cottingham. Eisenman, who has been open about her involvement with heroin in the ’90s, describes her own addiction as contributing to a kind of frisson around her currency and reputation and eventually leading her to go to the Betty Ford Clinic, and she mentions her subsequent recovery.

This period of personal challenge was also a time of huge professional success, a separation from the competition of equals that makes up the frenemy/lover/hater world of lesbian community when it is entirely underground. But as I scan Eisenman’s work from the ’90s. I see that she listened to herself. For some reason, she was liberated from the burden of pandering to which so many artists become quickly chained. One day artists are making lesbian images in their bathrooms, but by the time the work gets to museum walls, it’s wallpaper. Not Eisenman. In this early work, the discomfort of the body, the juxtaposition of the absurdity of physicality, of relationships, the weird consequences of intimacy—she took these to conclusions many were afraid to represent. There is a combination of personality, of authority, of privilege, will, and freakishness that one could call vision that has joined with history to guide her and us to this moment. Looking at that work, no one could have possibly known for sure what would have come next. What’s remarkable is that Eisenman’s ’90s work retains the power to open up possibilities and put the future in doubt. Looking at it now, you still feel that there is no way of knowing what the future will bring.

“Nicole Eisenman: What Happened” will be on view March 24 through September 10 at the Museum Brandhorst, Munich.

Sarah Schulman is a writer based in New York.