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March 27, 2013

Experts' Expert: Fiskars are scissors of choice for esteemed illustrator Barbara Nessim

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I know this because I saw the photo above on page two of this past Sunday's New York Times front section, captioned as follows: 

Below, excerpts from Carol Kino's March 21 Times story.


Women who built careers as illustrators in "Mad Men"-era New York were few and far between, and one is Barbara Nessim. In the early 1960s she became known for brightly colored pop portraits of women, made with fluid, expressive lines, which appeared in Esquire, Harper's Bazaar and girlie magazines. During feminism's rise in the early '70s her focus on women and gender roles drew the interest of publications covering women’s issues, like Ms. (Gloria Steinem was once her roommate), New York, and Time. In the '80s Ms. Nessim became one of the first illustrators to work with computers, which may be how she is best known today.

Yet despite these contributions Ms. Nessim, 73, has never received her due. "It used to be that as an illustrator you were shunned," she said, speaking of the gulf between fine and commercial art. "People didn’t think of it as an art form." But today, she added, the tide is turning. Largely driven by the Internet, she said, "the world has opened up," and all sorts of barriers have been eroding. Now she is enjoying her first retrospective, "Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life," which is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London through May 19. Last month Abrams published the monograph, which uses photographs, sketchbooks and other examples from Ms. Nessim's scrupulously kept archives to examine her work from the beginning.

"She's clearly a major figure in American art and design, and illustration in particular," said Douglas Dodds, the museum's senior curator of digital art, who organized the show. He learned of Ms. Nessim nearly 10 years ago when he saw her work in an important computer-art collection that was later donated to the museum. After including several pieces in the 2009 survey show "Digital Pioneers" he visited Ms. Nessim's spacious studio in the West Village, and was struck by her wide array of styles and approaches. Before long, Mr. Dodds said, "it became apparent that Barbara produced just so much wonderful material, and that someone, somewhere, desperately needed to mark that in some way with a retrospective."


As Ms. Nessim showed a visitor around her studio, her versatility was on full display. Hovering on a wall like a pop Madonna was "Star Girl Banded With Blue Wave" [above] an editioned portrait of a futuristic-looking superheroine that Ms. Nessim made in 1966 for a Manhattan design store. On her desk sat several half-finished, surrealistic photographic collages of female facial features and body parts, reassembled as if to suggest ransom notes.

Then there was her most recent piece: a pastel portrait of David Bowie [below]

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that the V&A Magazine had commissioned for the retrospective "David Bowie Is." Her instructions were to present Mr. Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase, using the same style as her 1979 illustration of Joni Mitchell for a Playboy Jazz Festival program and to turn it around over a weekend. Being an illustrator means you "rise to the challenge," she said.

Kind but intense, Ms. Nessim is quick to divulge personal anecdotes while also dispensing life philosophy — perhaps an outcome of her 25-year teaching career at the School of Visual Arts and Parsons. She grew up in the Bronx with a mailman father and a fashion designer mother who had married late and worked full time — an anomaly for the era. Ms. Nessim always knew she'd be an artist, but was determined to earn a living. "I wanted to support myself before I got married," she said. "And I wanted to know who I was before I got married. I had very specific ideas."

Her ideas about art were hazier. In 1956, when she arrived at Pratt School of the Arts, Abstract Expressionism still reigned. Although she used abstraction for her class work, by her senior year she was also making small symbolic paintings populated with figures and stories from her own life, most featuring women. That’s also when she began keeping a sketchbook and maintaining a daily stream-of-consciousness drawing practice, an approach more typically found among fine artists. "That’s basically where all my inspiration comes from," she said of her scores of sketchbooks. "I don't edit myself because I want to know what I’m thinking."

Fortuitously Ms. Nessim's approach, which combined self-discovery with the techniques and concerns of fine art, dovetailed perfectly with illustration's new era. While artists were moving toward performance and Pop art, illustrators were retreating from the realism and narrative storytelling that typified the '50s and borrowing styles and techniques from painters like Matisse and Picasso. "The ways in which stories were told were becoming more conceptual, more psychological and emotional," said Stephanie Plunkett, the chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., which chose Ms. Nessim as its first artist laureate in 2009. "Barbara was part of that wave."

Ms. Nessim's look, typified by a flowing, sensuous line and planes of brilliant color, was also distinctive. "There was an economy to it, a sensuality to it," said the filmmaker Robert Benton, who was the art director at Esquire when Ms. Nessim emerged. "It was both very naïve and very sophisticated." Art directors sought her work out precisely because it was not overtly commercial. With time they were also drawn to its female-centric focus. 


March 27, 2013 at 12:01 AM | Permalink


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