Nicole Eisenman: What Happened | Whitechapel Gallery

This retrospective - the American artist’s first in the UK, despite being active and famous since the 1990s - is a testament to a master. Eisenman’s specific mastery is in the handling of paint, and it’s pretty thrilling to witness what she does with it across several large rooms in the Whitechapel Gallery.

Her early canvases and murals were densely populated and smoothly-textured, fun and jokey: one particularly eyecatching work on the wall at Whitechapel shows a parade of brawny women beamingly hacking off the penises of their male victims, though they seem to be taking so much pleasure in their tasks it’s hard to be annoyed at them.

As the decades pass and the mastery increases, Eisenman makes increasingly virtuosic ventures into painted texture. Such as the pink buildup at the base of the half-finished sculpture, glowering at its creator, portrayed in Portrait of a Man, Wolfie, from 2007. (Notably for such a successful artist, Eisenman tends to depict artists as suffering, somehow.) Or the threadbare train seats, mesh cat carrier and red plastic headphones in Weeks on the Train (2015). Or maybe the hypnotic digital sheen of the lovingly-rendered Macbook screen that forms the backdrop of Morning Studio (2016).

Nicole Eisenman ‘The Darkward Trail’ (2018) Image credit: Tate

Things hit a kind of peak with her latest works, which respond more directly to the political situation in the US, specifically to the rise of right wing extremists to positions of power. One subject wears a red MAGA hat as he deliberately belches out black exhaust smoke from his pickup truck (Dark Light, from 2017). Pointing out that bigots are dreadful is not a subtle or novel political insight, but why should we expect that from someone who is so extravagantly talented at doing other things? Speaking of which, let’s look at Eisenman’s commanding handling of the central figure in The Darkward Trail, a 2018 work, pictured above, that will happily stay in the UK after being acquired by Tate.

Looked at from below, I could see that this chubby, shorts-clad, mule-riding man had had his fat pink knees delineated by just a few arced brush strokes. A shiny mini-rainbow of flesh that probably took its creator a few seconds to carve into the canvas. But she needed a whole lifetime of learning to be able to carve it.

Such learning is lightly worn. There’s a joyful erudition embedded into these paintings; Eisenman’s teachers are her fellow painters. She references everyone from Philip Guston to Hieronymous Bosch in her compositions, her figures, her colours. Yet, in her masterly hands, the imagery is all hers.

I originally saw Eisenman’s later politicised works, including that smoke-belching pickup truck, at Secession in Vienna in 2017. I wasn’t that moved or engaged, according to my notes, and similarly lukewarm when I wrote about the show in late 2020, on lockdown and scratching around for a politically-inclined show I remembered in the wake of the presidential election.

Now that I’ve seen the whole breathtaking sweep of her artistic progress, I think I should have looked closer back then. I’m thankful that I’ve seen these works in their proper context in London.

Nicole Eisenman: What Happened is at Whitechapel Gallery (London). 11 October 2023 - 14 January 2024