Eisenman-ia at The New Museum

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“Progress: Real or Imagined,” 2006 (detail)

And yet.

And yet, Eisenman is a terrific painter, full of invention, so much to look at, so much to argue with and and talk about. This genre of historical painting, maybe it is the “noblest form of art” as Alberti said because it is difficult and “requires mastery of all the others.” The painter must provide a philosophical worldview and the viewer has a lot to do, too, comparing the paintings to her own observations of people, places and things. Plus to my eye, Eisenman’s paintings aren’t corny, a feat in itself.

So, it’s not an encomium—is that so bad?

P.S. At least though I know one place she’s happy—the studio—see above “Progress: Real or Imagined.”

What I’ve done is make my concluding paragraphs my lead because on the internet some people don’t read the whole thing and because I am going to make a few critical remarks. Here’s one: Eisenman’s volcanic spew of images could use some editing and polishing— less Pynchon, more Austen. People reading that might think I don’t “like” her work and not realize that I said “volcanic” and I admire volcanos, they are forces of nature. And I might add that all this “liking” reads to me like people not thinking that painting is very important.

And then another thing is that the backgrounds of her paintings are so awful. Incompetent illustration, competent illustration (which is worse) and perfunctory filling-in of space— What’s the hurry, Eisenman?

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“Hamlet” 2007 (detail)

But when the subject catches her interest, there is some beautiful painting. Like the brushes in the coffee cans—easy and economical, a pleasure to look at.

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“Progress: Real or Imagined,” 2006 (detail)

Or the little boy’s head so fully invented—unlike the awful cobblestones.

"Beasley Street," 2007 (detail)

“Beasley Street,” 2007 (detail)

"Coping," 2008

“Coping,” 2008

Situated somewhere between historical painting (including narrative, religious, mythological and allegorical subjects) and genre painting (scenes of ordinary life), Eisenman often includes a portrait—the main character who tells me his/her dream. In “Coping” it goes something like this: “I was in a village in Switzerland and there was a flood of rushing brown water and people were wading in it hip deep but they weren’t wet and didn’t seem surprised by it and one man was wearing a bowler hat and red suspenders and smoking a cigarette and then this mummy was walking by him…” and before she can describe the cat swimming with the parrot on its head, I’m snoozing.

"Beasley Street," 2007

“Beasley Street,” 2007

And “In my dream, these children were leading me through a courtyard and whores were watching a dog fight and Oliver Twist was asking a housewife on crutches for more and I noticed that my hands were hairy and I had long claws and there were two ladies in long dresses smoking cigarettes in wheelchairs and their attendants were mummies …” The mummies put me into a stupor every time.

"Biergarten at Night," 2007

“Biergarten at Night,” 2007

In “Biergarten at Night” the portrait character is the waiter who is staring directly at the viewer. Here too there are an overwhelming number of allusions and quotations, but one of them grabbed me—a guy browbeating his girlfriend, poking a finger at her, making his point though she shrinks away from him. Too, too familiar and I don’t think I’ve seen it painted before—it gives me a thrill. I see why the waiter is dismayed.  Somehow it makes more sense for that other woman to embrace death than for the legions of slumping women to listen to the assholes.  The beer on the tray might be meant for the listening woman, she doesn’t have a drink and she needs one—maybe the waiter will give her a good tip.

"Biergarten at Night," 2007 (detail)

“Biergarten at Night,” 2007 (detail)

The other thing I like in this one is the man in the front who is kindly sharing his beer—there are few sympathetic moments in the works. Many of the paintings make me feel sad for the painter; she takes on modern life but feels an alienation from it that comes across loud and clear—other people are one dimensional, foolish, helpless, miserable or worse.

And yet.

And yet, Eisenman is a terrific painter, full of invention, so much to look at, so much to argue with and and to talk about. This genre of historical painting, maybe it is the “noblest form of art” as Alberti said because it is difficult and “requires mastery of all the others.” And the viewer has a lot to do comparing the paintings to her own observations of people, places and things. Plus to my eye, Eisenman’s paintings aren’t corny, a feat in itself.

So, it’s not an encomium—is that so bad?

P.S. At least though I know one place she’s happy—the studio—see above “Progress: Real or Imagined.” – CNQ