Nicole Eisenman’s A Valentine’s Day Show consists of two dozen drawings and three new paintings, all made from life depicting the artist’s friends in the pastoral seaside setting of Fire Island. The show originated with Eisenman’s desire to present and share a rather private body of work with a large audience in a context that acknowledges the intimate nature of these works in an appropriate and celebratory manner. Valentine’s Day only seems fitting.
Eisenman’s drawings, done outdoors in ink, watercolor, or pencil on a variety of papers, display a high grade of spontaneity and directness contrasting the habitual constraints of the studio. The artist’s familiar commanding power to allegorize seems momentarily suspended in favor of a seismographic line and the humiliating privacy of the subject matter. The drawings show her friends in total freedom and playful interaction, far removed from societal constraints, the bylaws of the art world, or public expectation. The viewer witnesses a degree of autonomy in both technical execution and content that is simultaneously humbling and liberating. The paintings, less direct but all the more complex, carry this experience back to the deliberation of the studio and elevate it to a metaphorical state.
Let’s take Valentine’s Day seriously for a moment. Like every instructional hagiography, or written life of a saint, the day of romantic love is similarly based on martyrdom and death. It commemorates the third-century Roman citizen Valentinus who was imprisoned and tortured for performing weddings and ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire. According to legend, during his imprisonment, Valentinus healed the daughter of his jailer and before his execution, he wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell. The Catholic church eventually sainted him and the feast of St. Valentine was first held on the 14th of February 496 CE. The day first became associated with romantic love within the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, when the idea of courtly love flourished. In 18th-century England, it evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as valentines).
Tying this narrative back to the exhibition, perhaps the theme of prevailing love under pressure emerges, and, even though cheekily appropriated by Eisenman, hints at the association of the artist’s friends as a utopian community with shared attitudes, an open circle in which a way of coexisting can be tried out in an unprecedented way and the model of a new society can be proposed.