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Nicole Eisenman’s painting ‘Ariana’s Salon’ reveals fresh thinking at Carnegie Museum


Just to look at this claustrophobic 2013 painting by Nicole Eisenman may spark viral anxiety in our time of social distancing. But there is, at least, some ventilation. It’s blowing through the painting itself, from back to front. And it’s blowing in from other civilizations, other eras.

“Ariana’s Salon” hangs in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. It’s a tribute, of sorts, to the wonderful weirdness of human togetherness — and also to Ariana Reines, a well-known poet and translator who used to organize a salon she called “Ancient Evenings” (“after a bad novel by Norman Mailer,” she explained). People would gather, drink, converse, listen to readings and try out things like automatic writing.

We find ourselves on one side of a darkened threshold craning to see what’s going on in a brightly lit room. (A performance of some kind?) Beside us, in the lamplight, is a seated figure, inflamed and opalescent, like a flaring ember. Perhaps — who knows? — she is a revolutionary.

Some of the most famous salons took place in 17th and 18th century France during the long evening of the Ancien Regime. They were run by brilliant women — salonnières — including the Marquise de Rambouillet, Madame de Lafayette, Madame de Staël and Madame de Tencin. These women helped spread the ideas of the Enlightenment and unwittingly fomented revolution.

Reines, in her 21st century salon, sought a bit of intellectual ventilation. She was not nostalgic so much as in revolt against social atomization, sobriety and a pinched modern mind-set. “I wanted to try reading and writing in company the way I fantasized a Heian courtier or an erudite merchant in Al-Andalus [Moorish Spain] might read and write — slightly or very drunkenly and at leisure in some kind of cohort.”

I don’t know if the readers at Ariana’s Salon would occasionally take off their clothes or if that’s just something Eisenman imagined. But I love the way this painting shimmers and wobbles, as if charged by the energy of its own ambivalence and by the social excitement of “what will happen next?”

Eisenman — one of this country’s finest contemporary artists — must have had that feeling when she moved to New York in 1987. Fellow artist Amy Sillman has described her roaming “the streets of Alphabet City alongside a veritable herd of young rockers, queers, politicos, performers and art schoolers who swelled and swarmed into the East Village in search of fun and danger.”

Hers was a cohort immersed in critical theory, thrilling to the liberating possibilities of transgression, queerness and gender fluidity. Eisenman nevertheless went off-script. Pursuing her long-standing interest in the art of the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque, she painted and drew bodies. Lots of them. Fabulous pileups of flesh conjuring Last Judgments, Sistine ceilings and all-around mannerist madness.

Even as she delighted in all this flesh-rendering, Eisenman’s youthful sensibility was informed by a kind of sardonic hilarity, high on underground comics, horror films, kitsch and porn. She was magnificently perverse. She gave her pictures titles like “Commerce Feeds Creativity” (an emaciated man spooning breast milk into the mouth of a bound naked woman) and “Golden Showers” (flights of tunic-clad angels funneling yellow liquids into clouds that unleash on the Earth).

Eisenman has lately funneled much of her perversity into raucous sculptures that answer exactly to the tenor of our ghoulish, carnivalesque politics. But political life and social life are not exactly the same. There is a difference, for instance, between a rally, where people shout slogans, and a salon like Ariana’s, where people read, and listen, are witty and perverse, and expose their vulnerable inner lives, and where everybody is watching to see what happens next.

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.” He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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