‘There are lots of different elements that make a masterpiece in various combinations, like humour, touch/texture, pattern, conception, colour, passion – for starters. Painting is an intellectual pursuit; it’s also an emotional and spiritual pursuit, a kind of reckoning with the infinite possibilities of the universe… The payoff is the moment when you bring something to life that has never existed before anywhere else.’ – Nicole Eisenman
Painted in 2003, Nicole Eisenman’s Death Playing Checkers is a whimsical and eccentric canvas bursting with humour. Eisenman won the MacArthur Fellowship in 2015, and the Foundation celebrated her for re-inserting ‘to the representation of the human form a cultural significance that had waned during the ascendancy of abstraction in the 20th century’ (MacArthur Foundation, https://www.macfound.org/fellows/936/). Eisenman’s practice is a study of figurative visual language: in Death Playing Checkers, a naked woman dressed in a gauzy gown battles Death. She lounges languidly, while Death wears the dramatic expression of a buskin mask; he is losing. Pixelated greens make up the dazzling grassy ground, the articulated daubs contrasting with the woman’s smoothly modelled face and body. Death and the woman are encircled by anthropomorphized and enrapt critters, reminiscent of the forest animals in the Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: a squirrel, a snake, a mole resting his head on crossed arms. They are, notionally, the painting’s own Greek chorus.
Death Playing Checkers is rife with juxtapositions; as critic Peter Schjeldahl writes, ‘Eisenman paints narrative fantasies that look bumptiously jokey at first, but reveal worlds of nuanced thought and feeling.’ (P. Schjeldahl, ‘Seriously Funny’, The New Yorker, May 16, 2006, n. p). In part, this is owing to her diverse array of touchstones, and Eisenman has cited Andrea Mantegna, German Expressionism, and Brooklyn’s Queer community, among others, as inspirations; she is particularly invested in questions and representations of sexuality. Eisenman’s deft blend of historical call-backs and quotations depicted alongside contemporary high and low motifs create a world that is wholly rooted in the now. Accordingly, Death Playing Checkers presents a universal and eternal fantasy, the dream of defeating Death, which feels entirely contemporary.