The will to dissolve or relax boundaries is part of what makes Eisenman’s work feel so of the moment right now. It’s the same acceptance of ambiguity that allows the artist, when asked why her single-figure paintings have been mostly of men, to remark: “Representing bodies is complex. What looks masculine in a painting could be a self-determined gender mutineer, or trans, or something completely off the spectrum. It seems that I present as masculine in the world, and I think I use my body as a baseline jumping-off point for representation, which I think goes a long way toward explaining the preponderance of masculine-looking bodies in this show.” What’s true of the painted figure also goes for the act of painting itself. When pressed with the observation that the painters who caught her eye in the 1980s—the likes of Julian Schnabel and the German Neo-Expressionists—were “very macho and conservative,” Eisenman explains: “To me, it’s radical, and it felt radical when I saw it for the first time…. My feeling about painting and gender is that whatever any dude feels entitled to, I feel like: ‘Fuck, I’m entitled to that too.’”
The title of the New Museum show, though, points to the ambivalence of Eisenman’s relation to the age-old traditions. At least some of her paintings are genuine allegories, with appropriately moralizing titles like The Work of Labor and Care (2004); Progress: Real and Imagined (2006), a diptych oddly represented in this show by just one of its panels; and The Triumph of Poverty (2009). At the same time, they are also send-ups of allegory, maybe even expressions of disgust with it. The didactic function of painting can only be sustained, Eisenman implies, if it is pursued with self-critical humor, if it tacitly acknowledges that it does not speak from a position of vested authority— allegorizing on behalf of church or state or any social consensus on values—but instead on the basis of its own cogency.