A contemporary take on Expressionism: UMass Amherst exhibit takes exclusive look at Nicole Eisenman’s prints

  • “Ouija,” six-color lithograph on paper, 2012 Image courtesy UMCA

  • “Beer Garden,” etching, aquatint and drypoint on Hahnemühle with chine collé, 2012-2017. Courtesy UMCA

  • Courtesy UMCA

  • “Tea Party,” two-color lithograph on paper, 2012 Image courtesy UMCA

  • “Picabia Filter III,” intaglio with drypoint, 2018. Courtesy UMCA

  • “Honey Bear,” a 2018 collagraph Image courtesy UMCA

  • “Contagion,” etching and aquatint on Hahnemühle bright white paper. The artist created this print in 2012, well before COVID-19. Image courtesy UMCA

  • “Drinks With Possible Spirit Type Entity,” etching and aquatint with chine collé on Hahnemühle bright white paper, 2012. Courtesy UMCA

  • “Wedding Bureau,” 1934 lithograph by Don Freeman. This print is part of a smaller exhibit at UMCA, featuring artists whose work influenced Nicole Eisenman’s prints. Image courtesy UMCA

  • Prints by Nicole Eisenman, courtesy of 10 Grand Press in Brooklyn, New York, at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Prints by Nicole Eisenman, made at Jungle Press in Brooklyn, New York, at a new exhibit at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Prints by Nicole Eisenman, made at Jungle Press in Brooklyn, New York, at a show at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lyle Denit, facilities installation manager at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst, works on the lighting for the side exhibit at prints at the m, STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lyle Denit, facilities installation manager at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst, at work in a print exhibit at the museum. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lyle Denit, facilities installation manager at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst, checks the lighting at a new exhibit of prints. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, October 04, 2021

In a short video interview filmed in 2015 after receiving a MacArthur Fellowship, New York City artist Nicole Eisenman said they typically have no idea what’s going to happen when they begin a new work: “Even if I do a preparatory sketch … it’s a skeleton, and you have no clue what the qualities of the piece are going to be. It’s always a surprise when I get to the end.”

But about 10 years ago, Eisenman, who’s known primarily for paintings and sculpture, embarked on a tightly focused new project: printmaking, a medium the artist had previously only dabbled in. And if Eisenman didn’t know where those prints were going at first, the artist drew on several specific inspirations for the work: surrealists, German expressionists and Pablo Picasso, among others.

The fruit of that intense period in Eisenman’s career, primarily during 2011-2013, is now on display in a new exhibit at the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which has just reopened to the public for the first time since March 2020.

According to UMCA Executive Director Loretta Yarlow, the new exhibit, “Prince,” is the first-ever show devoted exclusively to Eisenman’s prints. It features some 50 works — lithographs, etchings, engravings, paper pulp prints, woodcuts — made from 2011 to 2019, a time when Eisenman worked with a number of publishers and printing workshops in Brooklyn, New York.

It’s a panorama of surrealist and sometimes cartoonish portraits, some in vivid colors, with plenty of droll and mordant humor as well as more unsettling images. Gender, politics and environmental degradation are among the themes, and Eisenman also draws on the general human condition and relationships with friends for the work.

“The Thinker,” for instance, a two-tone lithograph from 2012, depicts a Rubenesque female nude lying partly on her side, facing the viewer. A small thought bubble hovers over her head — and inside that bubble is an image of a can of Bumble Bee tuna.

Another lithograph, “Sloppy Bar Room Kiss,” plays with form, showing what appears to be two well-lubricated people, their heads lying on a small table that also holds two glasses and a mostly empty bottle of wine. Their mouths are locked in a way that, along with how the rest of their partially hidden torsos are drawn, almost suggests a two-headed body; there’s a distinct flavor of Picasso in the print.

Yarlow says she’d been intrigued with Eisenman’s work for several years and at one point (pre-pandemic) visited the artist in their Brooklyn studio to talk about doing a show at UMass. It was Eisenman who suggested focusing on the prints, Yarlow noted, and the UMCA director was game.

“I love the way form and content merge so beautifully in their art,” Yarlow said.

Kind of a life-saver’

Aside from the MacArthur “genius” grant, Eisenman, born in Verdun, France but raised in the suburbs north of New York City, has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has exhibited work in the U.S. and Europe, including in Austria, Germany, Italy, Norway and other countries. She’s a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Eisenman’s print work is of particular interest to Yarlow because the artist specifically opted to do it, starting about 10 years ago, so that they could work closely with other printmakers and publishers. As Eisenman related in an interview a few years later, they had gone through a painful breakup with a longtime partner and wanted to become immersed in a new project.

“Having appointments with three different shops and three different sets of people three times a week really kept me going,” Eisenman said. “Having that company, that distraction and camaraderie, was kind of a lifesaver.”

“I think the fact that she actively collaborated with other people gave this work some different energy and let (Eisenman) experiment,” Yarlow said. “It really looks at some vital issues of today, like gender and climate change.”

A secondary UMCA exhibit, “Sideshow: Nicole Eisenman’s Modernist Inspirations,” features prints by early 20th-century artists including Max Beckmann, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso and others whose expressionistic work influenced Eisenman’s prints. Those prints, drawn from collections at Amherst and Mount Holyoke colleges and UMCA, offer what Yarlow calls “a dialogue between the two exhibits.”

Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream,” as one example, comes to mind when you consider Eisenman’s “Ouija,” a six-color lithograph in which three curving, ghoulish figures enact some kind of seance around a small table. And a number of Eisenman’s prints depicting people in bars seem redolent of beer garden scenes portrayed by German expressionists of the 1920s.

Eisenman offers their own spin on the latter with “Beer Garden,” a highly detailed etching they worked on between 2012-2017. It’s a kaleidoscopic tableau depicting dozens of cartoonish figures, including a naked woman holding a child aloft. In the foreground, as if seen directly from above, large, gnarled fingers hold a beer stein in which images of additional figures seem to float at the top of the stein.

As Yarlow writes in exhibit notes, Eisenman’s etchings “are epic, containing fully formed scenes (from home life to bar scenes) that unfold scratch by scratch.”

The figures in Eisenman’s woodcuts range from the Picasso-esque, such as in “Untitled: Girl With a Tear,” to the absurd: One showcases a naked artist, a paint brush stuck in her rear end, her head upside down and peering between her legs.

The artist’s lithographs, perhaps the moodiest of the work, can sometimes turn political. “Tea Party” features three figures — a skeleton, a fat-cat industrialist, and a sullen-looking man in a tricorn hat — clutching a scythe adorned with a small American flag.

Faye Hirsch, an editor at large at “Art in America,” writes in an essay that accompanies a poster for the exhibit that Eisenman, even when paying homage to other artists, has staked out unique grounds in their printmaking.

“There are surely few other artists alive today who can so effectively translate the dark comedy of a Beckmann cabaret into the foibles of a [Brooklyn] bar,” says Hirsch, “or transform the priapic heterosexuality of Picasso into a queer eroticism, or more accurately, seize upon the master’s excesses as a license to represent those of [their] own life and milieu.”

“Prince” and “Sideshow: Nicole Eisenman’s Modernist Inspirations” will be on view at UMCA through Dec. 5 and from Feb. 3 to May 1. A smaller exhibit that opened this spring, “We Are For Freedoms,” is continuing, and Spanish exhibit notes have been added for that with support from the UMass Amherst Translation Center.

More information on these exhibits and related events, including a Nov. 10 virtual chat with Nicole Eisenman, can be found at fac.umass.edu/UMCA/Online/.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.