Burning in Water is pleased to announce representation of New York artist Barbara Nessim. Nessim’s decades-long career encompasses pioneering work in the fields of illustration, graphic design, fashion design, feminist art, and digital art.
Nessim, the daughter of a postal worker and fashion designer, enrolled in the Pratt Institute in 1956, when the prevailing artistic trend in the United States was Abstract Expressionism. She “began to get a sense of what [she] was about visually” during her senior year when she began to create small, figurative paintings with symbolic imagery based on episodes from her life. Nessim furtively painted these personal works during lunchtime or at night, when the studio space was empty, going so far as to immediately stash finished paintings in her locker to ensure they remained private. Around this time, she began creating daily stream of conscious drawings in sketchbooks, a practice she continues to this day.
“I began to build a vocabulary of forms I would continue to come back to, such as abstract geometric shapes and recurrent symbols like rainbows, ribbons, shoes, stages, masks- all often arrayed in an undefined or ambiguous space. For me, a story told through the visual shorthand of symbols became more eloquent than a scene depicted literally. In life, we have gestures, intonation, mood- all those extra things that tell use more than we are literally hearing and seeing. In a picture you have only the frame within which to talk about the things that are happening.”
A desire for self-sufficiency has driven Nessim since the early days of her career. She recalls, “I was hell-bent on supporting myself and did not want to follow the conventional route that was expected of young women of the 1950s generation.” As a student, she survived on money she made from freelance jobs, making handbag and accessory drawings for a design studio and designing greeting cards. Following her graduation from Pratt in 1960, Nessim received a summer scholarship to the Pratt Graphic workshop, which allowed her to build her portfolio and explore working in monotype etchings, which she saw as an ideal medium for black and white illustration as they expanded the visual possibilities of background texture and line quality.
In the 1960s, the American illustration field was in flux. Audiences attuned to counter-cultural political movements considered the realistic illustrative style of the 1940s and 1950s outdated and stale. Young art directors at new, highly competitive publications embraced anything innovative and fresh that would make them stand above the rest, creating an environment ripe for experimentation. Many young artists, Nessim included, created work for Playboy-inspired ‘girlie’ publications, which were often staffed by young art directors who allowed a great deal of artist freedom within their pages. Additionally, Nessim recalls “the fact that more women were becoming art directors made my life a lot easier.” Nessim’s magazine work continued through the 1970s and 1980s, including prominent features in New York Magazine, Ms., Harper’s Bazaar, Working Woman, Rolling Stone, TIME, and The New York Times Magazine.
“Symbolism was Nessim’s forte, and she became an expert at using allegory and metaphor, disguising the obvious behind an image that could be decoded. On the surface, her work evoked classic beauty, but underneath was a very different agenda.” -Steven Heller
Nessim’s preferred subject is women; while her figures are often rendered attractively in pastel hues and adorned with ribbons, painted fingernails, and dreamlike accessories, they also symbolize capitalist consumption and the struggle of women to be taken seriously at a time when often the best professional role an intelligent, career-oriented, ambitious women could aspire to was the personal assistant of an important man. Nessim personally embodied this struggle, fighting to be taken seriously not only an artist who was a woman, but an artist who created designs and advertisements for top New York agencies during the Mad Men era. Woman artists of the era were typically relegated to work illustrating books for children. Nessim’s understanding of the feminist struggle expanded beyond her personal experiences; she shared an apartment and workspace with Gloria Steinem for six years in the 1960s.
“There was nothing submissively or stereotypically cute about her images, which blended decorative elegance with hard-edged thinking.” -Steven Heller
Nessim’s series of WomanGirl drawings from the early 1970s depict lithe women posed like dolls in front of minimalist landscapes that recall the surface of an uninhabited planet. Many have long, flowing hair, and pose seductively on arched heels clad in pointe ballet shoes; many also lack hands. Furthermore, their waists are encircled by fancifully designed garments recalling chastity belts, intentionally open at the front to emphasize a body devoid of public hair, blurring the distinction between the figures’ status as ‘woman’ or ‘girl’. Gazing downward, appearing to blush demurely, and lacking the use of their hands or feet, Nessim’s figures stand as a metaphor for the condition of women during the first Feminist wave: existing solely for the pleasure of the male gaze, and lacking any real agency or effective power. Yet other WomanGirls gaze confidently, if not confrontationally, back at the viewer. Some lack hair entirely, their bald heads challenging traditional standards of femininity. Depicted as interacting with their natural environments in a way which suggests not only a degree of comfort but also an innate connection with nature, the WomanGirls alternately can be viewed as immensely self-possessed and powerful, daring the viewer to look.
Always interested in new media, Nessim was an early advocate of using computers to make art. In 1982 Joel Azerrad, the Creative Director at TIME Video Information Services, invited Nessim to be artist-in-residence at TIME’s New York headquarters. Working at night when the offices were empty, Nessim taught herself to use a Norpak IPS-2 computer with only the aid of a manual. Nessim’s monumental Random Access Memories installation, first shown in 1991, allowed viewers to generate, print, and assemble their own mini-books of Nessim’s art, no two books alike. Random Access Memories is one of the earliest examples of participatory art in the digital age. Nessim recalls that during her twelve years as Chair at Parsons, “I convinced the then New School President, Jonathan Fanton, he was not going to have an art school unless he bought computers. I overhauled my curriculum to include computers and soon the school moved my popular course to a dedicated room and opened it up to the whole school and the Digital Design Department was born.” Nessim seamlessly incorporated computers into her graphic design commissions, notably the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1997, using a single curved line (drawn by hand, colored by computer), to illustrate the outline of a breast for a feature on breast cancer.
"I really was the first illustrator to work with computers. I can't tell you how many people thought it was a fad."
For several decades, Nessim has imparted her influence, knowledge, and passion for creating to hundreds of art students. She has held various teaching positions at notable institutions of art education in New York City, including The Pratt Institute (1976-1984), The School of Visual Arts (1967-1992), The Fashion Institute of Technology (1976-1992), and The Parsons School of Design (1992-2006), instructing students on a diverse range of subjects including illustration, drawing, painting, graphic design, and computer art.
“I never felt illustration was a limited practice. In fact, for me it was very interesting in many ways. Illustration is a way to get images out into the world to a mass audience. A visual can deepen the way a person understands what she is reading. I’ve illustrated stories and subjects that would otherwise never have crossed my path. It’s one of the most interesting professions I can imagine.”
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.
THE GUARDIAN: Illustrator Barbara Nessim: 'I was just steering my own ship'
In 1956, in a tiny apartment in the Bronx, Barbara Nessim's parents ceded a corner of their bedroom to the eldest of their three children. This small space formed 17-year-old Nessim's first studio. Now, half a century on, Nessim is one of the world's most revered illustrators, and her current workspace – a vast Manhattan penthouse with artworks stacked five deep against its walls – reflects that reputation…
Her own drawings and all her commercial illustrations for American magazines – including covers for Time, Rolling Stone and Harper's – look unmistakably hers, with their undulant, expressive lines and graceful, androgynous figures full of humour and pathos.
“When I graduated Pratt in 1960, there were few women in illustration and in the art world—I only knew that in retrospect. I felt all the doors were open to me and my goals, so I walked right through them with determination. Since I love what I’m doing, why should I stop at any age? There is nothing else I’d rather do.”
Barbara Nessim (b. 1939, Bronx, NY) is a long-time New York resident whose lengthy career in illustration, graphic design, fashion design, feminist art, and digital art is characterized by relentless passion and avant-garde experimentation. Always aware of the world around her but remaining true to the visions in her mind, Nessim’s style is wholly and uniquely her own.
One of the first full-time professional women illustrators working in the United States during the 1960s, Nessim also broke barriers in the early 1980s when she became one of the first artists to experiment with computer-generated art.
Nessim’s artworks have been exhibited at numerous institutions in North America, Europe, and Asia, including the Louvre, The Whitney Museum, The Cooper Hewitt Museum, The Smithsonian Institute, and The Norman Rockwell Museum.
Her work has been published in New York Magazine, Ms., Harper’s Bazaar, Working Woman, Rolling Stone, TIME, and The New York Times Magazine.
The Victoria & Albert Museum in London exhibited a major retrospective of Nessim’s works, titled An Artful Life, in 2013.