Nicole Eisenman is a modern Renaissance woman. A RISD-grad and bona-fide art history buff with a teaching gig at Bard, she boasts a body of work spanning at least three mediums and residing in more than six prestigious museum collections (MoMA among them). Though she maintains the self-assurance of an artist who’s really “made it,” the painter, sculptor and part-time curator remains as down-to-earth and self-deprecating as they come. Eisenman is thoughtful without ever seeming to take herself too seriously and more than willing to chat with WEEKEND about Dracula, the time she accidentally took a bite out of a work of art, and why all budding MFAs should learn how to use power tools, ASAP.
Q: How did you get your start as an artist? When did you realize that your passion for art was something you wanted to make into a career?
A: That, for me, happened pretty young. I decided at some point in high school that I was going to apply to art school, and so I really had an idea pretty early on of what I wanted to do. It wasn’t so much a “career choice” as a pursuit of this passion I had for art-making, and I was — I have been — very fortunate to make a career out of it, and to make a living doing it. I don’t know that I ever pursued it as a career; it was more that I was always interested in art and wanted to do it, and the “career” kind of fell into place — luckily for me — as I went along.
Q: If you had to describe your work to someone unfamiliar with it in a few sentences, what would you say?
A: I am primarily a painter, although I draw, sculpt, print-make, curate and collaborate as well. My work is largely narrative, more often than not figurative, and it’s hard to pin down. Broad strokes, but I think that would be a pretty apt description of it.
Q: What does your studio practice look like?
A: [It’s] pretty straightforward. I come in here usually around 11 in the morning, and I work until 8 or 9 at night. I punch the clock everyday … Basically, I come in at 11, I have lunch looking at the work I did the day before; I play records while I work. And usually I’m distracted, texting friends as I work. I basically spend the day floating between my iPhone and my paintings and my record player.
Q: What’s your craziest art world story? (Because everybody in the art world is crazy…)
A: It’s true … there’s a lot of kook in the art world. Everybody is kooks in the art world; that’s why I try to avoid it as much as I can. [Laughs] My craziest art world stories are totally slanderous! Couldn’t possibly repeat them here. One silly thing comes to mind, though … I did take a bite out of a Robert Gober donut when they were on display at Paula Cooper back in the day. Even after I spit it out, it still didn’t occur to me that I had bitten into an artwork.
Q: Although it sounds like you might try to keep your distance from the art world, are there any events happening — in New York City or elsewhere — that we should know about?
A: I’m not sure I have a lot of super great advice, but the shows that are currently on my docket are Chris Ofili [at the New Museum] and Matisse [at the Museum of Modern Art]. And then there’s a Neo Rauch show opening soon at [David] Zwirner. Those are shows I want to see.
Q: Several biographies, such as one written for the Carnegie Prize, which you received in 2013, mention the influence of art history on your work. What do you consider the role of the history of art in a technical art education?
A: I think it’s an essential part of an artist’s education. I think it’s important to be aware of what’s come before us, probably for a lot of different reasons. But what I like to think is that all of us — all artists, as a subgroup of humankind — are in this big project together. We’re all moving the humanities and art forward together, and we’re part of a family. I feel like I’m part of a family tree of artists, and I want to know who I’m related to; I’m curious about art history because I feel like I have relations to these artists, and I think it’s a place to go to find inspiration.
History can be both inspiring and something to push back against; something to draw inspiration from and to resist. Not to resist in terms of not learning about it — obviously I’m interested in learning about art history and seeing everything — in the sense that young artists need to know about it so they can make an educated resistance against it.
Q: In light of your belief in the importance of art history, do you have any favorite artists, art movements or even particular works that inspire you?
A: It changes all the time. I look at the German Expressionists and the French Impressionists; Munch … I’m interested in everything. I’m looking at my bookshelf right now, and I see Blake, Brueghel, Picasso, Bonnard; I see a book about the pictorial history of monsters in Hollywood movies; I have a book of album cover art; of Hogarth … I mean, I really try to take in everything. It all feeds the beast.
Q: It’s kitschy but … if you could spend an afternoon with anyone — alive or dead — who would it be? (“Yourself” is also a potentially acceptable answer.)
A: I could do better than myself. I actually don’t think I’d want to have dinner with myself … I do that all the time, and it’s not that interesting. [Laughs] Anyways, it’s like Halloween-time, so maybe Dracula? Maybe we could make some kind of deal, and I wouldn’t feel like I would have to make all this art on a deadline … I feel like I could relax and slow down if I had another 500 years.
Q: In reading your bio on Koenig & Clinton’s website, I noticed you live and work in Brooklyn. Do you have any favorite neighborhood spots where you think everyone should go (or not go)?
A: Everybody should avoid the vape bar [Beyond Vape] on Grand Street downstairs from my apartment — it smells like people are smoking strawberry shortcake. That would really be a place to avoid. And a place to go … I like to drink beers at Achilles Heel; it’s a nice old-timey bar. I did a painting last summer called Achilles Heel, actually.
Q: You teach at Bard College. If your students learn one thing from you, what do you hope it to be?
A: Learn how to build walls. I think it’s really important that when you’re graduated from art school, you have some concrete skills: to know how to build things, how to handle a power tool, how to make stretchers and build stuff.
Q: And, more broadly, any advice for young artists?
A: I think my advice would be to keep your eye on what’s important and not to get sidetracked by the art world and having an art career. What’s essential, if you really believe in yourself as an artist, is to put the work — and not the career stuff — forward and to give it primacy in your thinking, so you’re not going to get obsessed with the art world, but obsessed with your process. The idea is just to keep your focus on what’s important and not to lose track of what’s essential, which is the making of your art. And then to be willing to do whatever the hell it takes; to be willing to work whatever crap-ass job you have to work to keep yourself flush in paint.