Barbara Nessim’s career stands as a kind of time capsule of a transitional moment animated by people who remain permanently young, forward-looking, contrarian, and individualistic. Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life, a new volume out from Abrams, provides a compilation of the illustrator’s vivid graphic design, drawings, photographs, and documents. It’s at once a cultural history, a biography, and a portrait of New York’s fertile creative milieu—in the 1970s, in particular.
An essay by the book’s editor, David Galloway, and an interview with art historian Matthew Israel elaborate Nessim’s personal and artistic evolution. Her mother was a self-taught fashion designer from a Sephardic Jewish community, and her father, who was also Sephardic, spoke seven languages, was a postman, and ran a small import-export business. Nessim recalls how it was on her tenth birthday that she first felt like an artist. Her parents bought her good paper and a Grumbacher pastel set, and, she says, “I used them right away to make a portrait of my birthday cake.”
The Bronx-raised Nessim, now 74, attended Pratt (against her father’s wishes; her mother paid), and she took courses there with German Pop artist Richard Lindner and French artist-writer Tomi Ungerer—both of whom, like Nessim, played at the edges of illustration, decoration, and high art.
Nessim later found herself enamored with technology. Galloway (Wuppertal correspondent for ARTnews) discovered her work in the 1980s, first attracted by her computer graphics. “Where many artists and technicians were in love with their tools and wanted to show off their savvy,” he says, “she was using the new electronic tools to produce thematically rich works of high esthetic standards.”
Nessim roomed for some six years with women’s liberation spokesperson Gloria Steinem, but was not herself a hardcore feminist, although her concerns certainly touch on women’s issues. Her drawings of Wonder Woman–type characters—their pudenda exposed prominently with no pubic hair—spoke to a strange freedom of expression. Her “WomanGirl” series describes Twiggy-like, innocent, and confidently explicit characters. (Several of these were on view earlier this year in Nessim’s retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.)
Nessim’s designs include delicate black-and-white line drawings that appear part Aubrey Beardsley, part George Grosz, part Louise Bourgeois, and have an almost writerly quality—when they’re not psychedelic and bold, like her covers for New York and Rolling Stone. For that work, she’d mix hard mechanical shapes with soft human ones.
And commercial art is not beneath her. As she tells designer-journalist Steven Heller, “It was always puzzling when people compared illustrating to prostitution.” She proudly did a stint as a shoe designer for an Italian company, commenting, “I was so ahead of my time in so many different areas.” And in 2010, for New York’s Eventi Hotel, she designed a series of 13 paintings, each a pastiche of feminine beauty, featuring masks and masking from classical to modern times—a cultural collaging titled “Chronicles of Beauty.”