Wielding a New Medium, Nicole Eisenman Wins the Carnegie Prize

Nicole Eisenman, "Beer Garden with Ulrike and Celeste," 2009 (detail)
(Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York)

The Carnegie International 2013 announced French artist Nicole Eisenman the winner of its Carnegie Prize, October 8, following an opening gala last Friday, and a weekend replete with performances and Pittsburgh-area parties and museum openings that saw the international art world descend on the rust-belt center. And indeed, those first heady days at the museum marked the New York-based Eisenman a clear contender, with her vast assortment of site-specific sculptures and career-spanning paintings sending tongues wagging.

The Carnegie’s anticipated biennial (which takes place every 3-5 years) features 35 artists, this year, and, since its inception in 1896, an expansive survey of contemporary art. This iteration carries a purposefully unfocused agenda, however, with its trio of curators (Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers, and Tina Kuklelski) refraining from a theme (as opposed to the 2008 edition, Douglas Fogle’s future-leaning “Life After Mars,” for instance). The simply-titled “Carnegie International 2013” makes room for its artists, then, with stars emerging among its historic and scopious galleries, and spiking through with skillful interventions. Curatorially, Eisenman was clearly tagged a leading talent early on, as she’s afforded a pivotal and communicative site for her dual media. The museum’s two-tiered Hall of Sculpture rings the Carnegie’s center with white-washed Italian Renaissance sculpture forming harmonious (and masculine) union in contrapposto and fig-leafed grandeur. Eisenman — who came to prominence in the 1990s for paintings that self-reflexively satirize and empower her gay female subjects — recently shifted over to sculpture; but in no way does she appear the novice, rather embracing her newfound medium with applaudable command and boisterous amenity. Indeed, Eisenman posits her outsized plaster sculptures among their more historic and stalwart counterparts like a band of crude and soft-spoken rubes wedged between and slumped beside their black-tie equivalents. For every six-foot Italian hero, a rough-hewn and comically sheepish mascot for our age of indifference takes the whole thing down a notch, and bleeds humor from marbled stone. It’s a remarkably bold and confident move for the mid-career artist, and one that quickly elicites its due praise.

Backing this latest body of work, a significant cadre of Eisenman’s best-known work, her painting, lines the Hall of Sculpture’s walls. The array of both large-scale and diminutive canvases remembers this unique talent’s ready and winking subversion, her wont to undermine her evident technical skill for the more satisfying fruits of stubborn naïvity, subtle parody, political agitation, and historical relativism. In conversation with the Carnegie Museum of Art’s director, Eisenman said, “I’m like a developer building high-rise condos on the ruins of art history.” Never has she been given such a ruin, nor built quite so ambitiously and high, as at the Carnegie International 2013; the jury’s weighed-in, and the foundations are sound.


The Carnegie Prize includes a $10,000 award and the Medal of Honor, designed by Tiffany & Co., cast by J. E. Caldwell & Co., and first issued at the 1896 International. South African photographer Zanele Muholi was awarded the Fine Prize, which recognizes an emerging International artist.