Nicole Eisenman’s New Museum survey takes me back to the 1995 Whitney Biennial, which included her wall mural, Self-Portrait With Exploded Whitney. Now buried behind a wall at the Whitney’s old Breuer building, the work depicted the artist after an unknown cataclysm, painting among the museum’s ruins as firefighters pulled survivors from the rubble. Viewed through the prism of 9/11, the scene would seem chilling today, but at the time, Exploded Whitney was taken for an ironic spin on the tear-down-the-system statements common to young artists. In hindsight, Eisenman’s apocalyptic jape could also be construed as a prophecy of a larger collapse, one we may now be experiencing. In that sense, this show couldn’t be more timely.
Eisenman channel surfs through art history, melding Expressionism, Surrealism, pop culture and feminism as she dunks her brush into the stylistic wells of Francis Bacon, Otto Dix, Philip Guston and many others. Much of her work displays an affinity for the gallows humor of Weimar art, and considering the hypocritical dream state of contemporary American life—in which the reality-based community has given way to a psychotic break with constitutional norms—you could say that Eisenman’s work represents a sort of Neue Sachlichkeit for the Trump era.
Her views become abundantly clear in Tea Party (2011), which imagines our republic as a motley crew of survivalists in a well-stocked bunker. Joining them in limbo is Uncle Sam, who not only wears striped pants patched at the knee but also an expression registering resignation to a society that seeks solace in fear.
More subtle are paintings like Coping (2008), which has a rising tide of abject goo that stands in for collective malaise. However, another work, The Triumph of Poverty (2009), runs the risk of mocking the underclass losers who are its subjects. Even so, a quotation in the lower right corner from Pieter Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind shows that Eisenman’s gimlet-eyed view of humanity is in good company.
All of this might seem wearingly dyspeptic were it not for the artist’s command of painting (though there also are a few less-successful sculptures here) and the pleasures of the medium she conveys. Her enjoyment is made erotically tangible by the female couple in Night Studio (2009), who bask in postcoital bliss alongside a stack of art-historical reference books.
As a gay woman, Eisenman embraces a type of identity politics that looks at mainstream society and finds it comically wanting. Indeed, the wordplay of her show’s title, “Al-ugh-ories,” conveys disgust for the kind of people who demand respect for their prejudices. Of course, those same people know little about the art world Eisenman inhabits, but even if her disdain is elitist, she’s still not wrong. As she suggested 20 years ago, the center has exploded, only this time there may be no one to rescue.