At the entrance to “Dear Nemesis, Nicole Eisenman 1993–2013”—the New York–based painter’s largest survey to date—the subject in Guy Artist (2011) seemed to evaluate the viewer with one piercing eye and a thumb extended forward. Painted in a style evocative of Picasso’s late work, he is a caricature of the quintessential male artist, yet he also resembles Eisenman herself—it’s as though she’s saying, I’ll take it from here.
As this show made dazzlingly evident, Eisenman is adept at turning art-historical tropes to her own humorous, feminist, and expressive ends. Amid a wall of works on paper, Man Cloud (1999), for instance, conjured Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (1536–41) in its depiction of an elevated mass of writhing male bodies—to which pairs of women, lounging amorously below, seem oblivious.
A group of same-size paintings recalling artists from Munch to van Gogh emphasized voyeurism as part of the artist’s role—as in one of a giant eyeball mirroring the breasts of a naked model. But Eisenman is at her best in such large-scale canvases as Sunday Night Dinner (2009), which, even as it summons both the domestic claustrophobia of Vuillard and the ghoulish faces of Ensor, captures dysfunctional family dynamics and communication breakdown in a way that feels entirely contemporary.
A version of this story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 88.