Jun 29, 2023

The Layered Intimacies of Nicole Eisenman’s Prints

By Grace Edquist

In 2010, on the heels of an intense period of painting, the artist Nicole Eisenman wanted a change, something to shake up a practice that had become almost too familiar. She packed her paints into a trunk, washed the walls of her studio in a fresh coat of white, and got to the formidable work of starting from scratch—this time as a printmaker. Two decades into a fruitful art career, she was a beginner again. "It felt really freeing: suddenly a whole new set of problems and puzzles to play with," Eisenman says. For months on end she dedicated herself to learning the craft. She didn't paint for a year.

The results of that intense burst of printmaking—and her work in the medium since—are now on glorious display at Print Center New York. "Nicole Eisenman: Prince," running through May 13, includes more than 40 lithographs, etchings, monoprints, woodcuts, and other prints, some of which have rarely (if ever) been seen.

Eisenman's body of work has positioned her as one of the most important artists working today and earned her a MacArthur award. For those familiar with Eisenman's paintings and sculptures—which feature large and cartoon-like figures in situations that run from playful to almost sinister, often with queer and political themes—these prints are kindred spirits. Tonally, they are Nicole Eisenman all over. As in her other pieces, we see lots of people: alone, in groups, kissing, having a drink, hanging out. But there's something different about these prints. They feel stripped down, peeled back, and intimate.

Where her oil paintings are bold and overt with vibrant colors and detailed narratives, many of the prints are subdued without much in the way of background detail. Still, what the New York–based Eisenman, 57, is able to communicate with the scrape of a knife's edge astounds. In Untitled (Girl With a Tear), a woodcut from 2012, a sparsely carved and Picasso-like face uses but pink lines and negative space to convey a pain recognizable to just about anyone. There's a whole ocean of feeling in that one languid teardrop.

Nicole Eisenman, Untitled (Girl With a Tear), 2012

Crucial to Eisenman's printmaking, and highlighted in "Prince," is her close collaboration with New York print shops Jungle Press, 10 Grand Press, and Harlan & Weaver. In her year of learning the art form, Eisenman created a weekly schedule for herself, studiously rotating among the three shops as she worked with their expert printers on various techniques. "I got really hungry to learn about all these different processes," Eisenman says. Immersion was the point.

And there was a lot to learn. Printmaking can get very technical, and Eisenman's constant experimentation meant pushing the bounds of what was possible in terms of materials, process, scale, color, and so on. (Bathtub Relief, to your left as you enter the Print Center gallery space, is a brand-new sculptural piece made from Aqua-Resin and fiberglass that requires a "Do not touch" sign—not often expected at a print show.) This spirit of ongoing exploration and risk-taking may be inherited from her father. "He was a psychiatrist, but he always had a hobby," Eisenman recalls. "One year it was a woodshop in the basement, another year he got into stained glass windows, and he was an amateur poet. I think I got this gift of restlessness and curiosity from him."

Nicole Eisenman, Artist, 2010

Etching plate for Artist

Delightfully, "Prince" includes some etching plates and relief versions alongside original prints. These additions feel like a peek under the hood, the artistic exposure of the means of production. One of the more thrilling inclusions in this vein is Watermark and its seven progressive proofs. Using a re-workable copper plate (a technique within the intaglio family, also used by Picasso), Eisenman slowly builds out a scene of her two children at their grandparents’ home in Maine, filling in details and sharpening the shading. In the first proof, the kids are mere black blobs, the room around them spare. Eventually we get an amazingly detailed picture. Even the books on the shelves have titles etched on the spines. The effect is of a dream taking shape before your eyes.

Installation view of Watermark in "Nicole Eisenman: Prince." Photo by Argenis Apolinario for Print Center New York

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These little hints at Eisenman's process fed a kind of push-pull feeling I often get when seeing art. Part of me wants to know how all these pieces were made: How many passes on each plate, what equipment was used, how long it took. But as with all art, there's serenity in not knowing, in letting whatever feelings of joy or humor or melancholy that bubble up be enough.

Since her initial intense bout of making prints, Eisenman has returned to the medium when the right idea strikes. "There's a line between drawing and sculpture that printmaking can step into," she says. Maybe a collagraph is made from drawing on leftover wood with wax from her studio. Theoretically, she says: "The material has to show you the way." But ideas hang around, as do characters. There are prints of cartoonish heads in "Prince" made a decade ago—like the three versions of Untitled (for Parkett 91)—that resemble works in a recent show of paintings and sculpture at Hauser & Wirth, a connection Eisenman made in real-time as we spoke the other week.

Nicole Eisenman, Beer Garden, 2012–17

Beer Garden—the largest in the show at four feet wide and almost as tall, and one that has rightly garnered wide acclaim—references some of Eisenman's most well-known paintings, including Brooklyn Biergarten II, from 2008. Both feature a congress of folks—friends, fellow artists, doppelgängers—gathered under cafe lights strung up in trees. The print is stripped of the saturated colors of the painting, but the details rendered in shades of gray have no end: the lighting of a cigarette, newspaper headlines about drones at Occupy, a baby hoisted overhead. This monumental piece took five years to make, from 2012 to 2017, and it sums up something that is true of any Nicole Eisenman piece: Fluent in the language of life's contradictions, she shows us the beauty in the chaos.

"Nicole Eisenman: Prince" is open at Print Center New York, 535 West 24th Street, through May 13, 2023.