Nicole Eisenman: What Happened

Nicole Eisenman: What Happened
What Happened is Eisenman’s most comprehensive monograph to date, traversing thirty years of the artist’s engagement with the technological, political and social changes that have shaped our lives.


From drawing and painting to print-making and sculpture, Nicole Eisenman’s practice combines formal experimentation with wide-ranging references to art history. Her critical and often humorous commentary on the ever-changing nature of public life consistently challenges power structures and normative conceptions of gender.

Nicole Eisenman: What Happened brings together over 100 works from across the artist’s career – many of which have not previously been shown in the UK.  Encompassing large-scale, monumental paintings alongside sculptures, monoprints, animation and drawings, the retrospective showcases the extraordinary range and formal inventiveness that characterises her practice.

The Whitechapel Gallery’s Autumn programme aims to highlight the work of female artists whose diverse practices draw attention to the ways in which art can open up new vistas and perspectives against the grain of mainstream public narratives. Through a rich array of artforms and media the works invite us to reflect on the relationship between language and meaning, the individual and the collective, private and public domains, at a time when these seem frequently out of step.

Eisenman is one such individual, delivering a highly satirical commentary on some of the most prominent social and political issues of our time. Having moved to NYC in the late 80s, the French-American artist first studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. Here she quickly became part of a vociferous community of creators, writers and poets, developing a distinctive visual sensibility that mixed humour, pastiche and caricature with a critical feminist perspective.

Eisenman’s early work feels like French satirist Honoré Daumier going to therapy, hanging out in hip New York instead of revolutionary France, and looking inwards as much as outwards. She first gained notoriety for her installations of drawings, and vast temporary murals. These pieces often stylistically drew on a broad set of influences and knowledge, irreverently mixing comics, porn, Italian renaissance battle scenes and social realism.

She foregrounds queer communities, vulnerably explores her own ‘successes’ and ‘failures’, critiques the political pantomime, addresses urgent economic and environmental issues, and offers bemused but tender reflections on the impact of technology on human behaviour and relationships. Her take on the world is realistically joyous and dystopian.

The What Happened exhibition was arranged over eight chronological chapters, taking us on a journey from her earliest cave drawings, right through to her monumental modern renaissance paintings and sculptures. At 58, and with a MacArthur Genius Grant, she is famed for her bold inventiveness and sharp observations, splayed out across lesbian satires and Brooklyn bacchanals, her mordant take on contemporary US life.


From Success To Obscurity

Getting on and / or getting by, despite the obstacles, might be Eisenman’s forte. The props from her period pieces are familiar – laptops, mobile phones, and Zoom calls – where people try to breach the prophylactic screen to achieve any kind of intimacy. An underground train rushes forwards, unnoticed, by a giant eyeball staring into a digital abyss; And a sad-eyed monster holds a rejection letter in his crusty palms; From Success to Obscurity is the title.

In many of her pieces from the nostalgic 90s, Eisenman deals with the psychological trials of being an emerging artist. Following an early decade of success, she began to feel as if her work was falling out of favour with critics and curators. The invitations to exhibit dropped off. Four paintings created in the early 2000s explore this shift in status with characteristic wit and self-scrutiny. She presents the artist as a thick-skinned monster, ‘Obscurity’, based on the Marvel comics’ The Thing; a bound character dependent on its gallerist.

Eisenman’s approach to painting also evolved during this time. She began to sculpt her canvases, improvising with impasto and texture. This approach is allegorised in a scene where the artist transforms into a werewolf whose body seems as monstrous as the surface they have created.


Coping And The Jewellery Tree

With the re-election of George W. Bush as US President in 2004, the continuation of the ‘War On Terror’, the global economic crisis after 08, and a growing consciousness of climate emergency, Eisenman shifted her attention from the figure of the artist to its reflection in the world around her. Coping and The Triumph of Poverty imagine groups of people doing their best to survive amidst increasingly grim circumstances.

She began to harness the language of early 20th century figuration and expressionism in her work – styles of painting associated with Vienna, where her grandparents once lived. She has said that her paintings of this time convey “a sense of longing for another time and place.” Eisenman’s father was a psychiatrist, and in The Session, she portrays a juvenile version of herself reclined on his couch, almost obscured by stacks of Western psychotherapeutic literature.

In 2012 she made another noticeable shift into sculpture, and was invited to propose a piece for the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Jewellery Tree included a tin foil medal based on Lord Nelson’s, as well as a crushed British beer can, flatbread, and other found objects. Although the work was not finally commissioned, the maquette was displayed in the National Gallery that same year.


The Maker’s Muck

Exploring her art-making process, Eisenman often addresses one medium through another. Untitled (Portrait of a Man, Wolfie) shows an artist contemplating the self-portrait bust they’ve just created, and Achilles Heel imagines grey, plaster-like muck covering a bar whose customers can barely shape it; demonstrating the fine balance between chaos and order perhaps necessary for success.

In marked distinction to the group scenes of her 90s work, her pieces from the last 15 years revolve around a more solitary romance. Somewhat in opposition to the flat screens they depict, these paintings are heavily textured. By 2011, alert to the growing presence of right-wing extremism during Obama’s presidency, Eisenman painted Tea Party, and in 2016, appalled by the impending election of Donald Trump, she began to use her paintings to allegorise the situation in the US more explicitly.

Dark Light shows three men (one wearing the red baseball cap associated with Trump’s campaign) riding in a pickup truck, purposefully polluting the atmosphere through a tactic known as ‘rolling coal’, while ghoulish figures patrol a barren desert landscape using drones. Eisenman’s most notorious work during this time was Procession, a sculptural piece often interpreted as an anti-heroic assembly of misfits.

The contemporary retrospective rounds off with Maker’s Muck (2022), Eisenman’s most ambitious rotating indoor installation to date. The anonymous sculptor at the centre is surrounded by evidence of their productivity, though they seem to be accomplishing little more than perpetually sticking their hands into the unshaped clay of the world. Incorporating maquettes and models of Eisenman’s other sculptures, the work is a sort of self-portrait. But it can also be read as an allegory of what it feels like for anyone to manufacture goods and services within a circular environment of endless production and consumption.