Barbara Nessim is an artist whose daring and proliﬁc work, spanning six decades, deﬁes narrow categorization. Her artistic production has straddled ﬁne art and illustration, pushing against and reshaping the boundaries of the often rigid separation between the two ﬁelds. With her artworks on paper informing her commercial illustrations, Nessim always begins with line or color, independent of medium, context or application. Her vibrant colorful imagery is ﬁgurative, conceptual and deeply intuitive. Its power and enduring relevance lies in its fusion of skillful technique, social engagement and pop culture resonance. Nessim’s artworks, as her biography, are the story of the evolving gender equity and shifting cultural landscapes of New York City. Her works have been exhibited and collected internationally, including London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. Nessim received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Pratt Institute in 2015 and was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2020.
Supported early on by prominent illustrators and designers including Robert Weaver, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Henry Wolf, and Robert Benton, Nessim graduated from Pratt in 1960 where she studied Graphic Art and Illustration. At a time in which students were encouraged to emulate Abstract Expressionism, Nessim made intimate paintings with narrative emphasis. One of her ﬁrst series, Man and Machine (1960), represents the artist’s unique visual vocabulary, in which stylistic echoes of German Expressionism combine with distinctly New York subject matter. Her non-traditional use of watercolor, monotype etching and lithography as well as embedded text in image, became signature features of both Nessim’s ﬁne art and commercial illustration work. Dozens of sketchbooks, shelved chronologically in her studio, reﬂect the creative traﬃc between her diﬀerent modes of production.
Alongside her artistic practice, Nessim’s academic career began at the School of Visual Arts in 1967, where she taught until leaving to chair the Illustration Department at Parsons School of Design in 1991. Her pioneering impulse propelled her to the forefront of computer-generated graphic art in the early 1980s, by way of an art residency at TIME Inc. and later through an aﬃliation with IBM. In the 1990s, her expansive Random Access Memories series, which treats issues of population growth, immigration and diversity, positioned her among the ﬁrst artists to drive illustrated book design into the digital sphere. Further evolving her use of digital media, two bodies of work – The Model Project (2008 – 2009) and Chronicles of Beauty (2009 – 2010) – combine analogue collage and digital printing techniques, using contemporary fashion imagery to address the thorny history of ideals of femininity and masculinity.
In her newest series, The Wo/men in My Life (2019 – 2020), Nessim returns to her trove of sketchbooks. As much as these works in oil on canvas are based on sketches produced over forty years ago, they are in no way looking backwards. Nessim astonishes with her ability to translate the economy and intuition of a single gesture at 6” x 9”, into a 6’ x 4’ painting with remarkable depth. These impressively scaled canvases are portraits of non-binary individuals in wild and vivid colors, painted to a sensuous velvety texture and peppered with recognizable imagery from six decades of work – ribbons, swirls, geometric shapes that anthropomorphize, impossible hair and silhouetted nipples. Suggestive body parts patterned to near abstraction, such as a grid of tongues, in the painting The Gift of Tongues, peaking down from above, are edgy and exciting. While The Wo/men in My Life are not based on actual people, they embody a speciﬁcity to Nessim’s artistic universe that renders them unmistakably as characters in her life.
- Jessica Eisenthal, 2021
Barbara Nessim (born 1939, Bronx, NY) is a New York based artist and illustrator whose career spans six decades. Her practice encompasses fine art and illustration - constantly challenging and subverting the perceived separation between the fields. In the early 1960s, Nessim was one of the first full-time professional women illustrators working in the United States. She produced designs for many top publications including The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Time, New York and Esquire. Nessim began to teach illustration at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York in 1967. She subsequently served as the Chair of the Department of Illustration at Parsons in New York for over a decade. Nessim was awarded the Pratt Lifetime Achievement Award and was recently inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. At the dawn of the computer age, Nessim was one of the first artists of note to begin using the computer as an artistic tool. She taught in the Master’s degree program in digital illustration at SVA and fostered widespread adoption of digital technologies as the Chairperson of Illustration at Parsons School of Design.
Nessim’s artworks have been broadly shown at institutions including The Louvre, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Smithsonian and The Bard Center, The Victoria & Albert Museum in London mounted a major retrospective in 2013, entitled Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life. Nessim’s work is in the permanent collections of major institutions, including The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Victoria & Albert Museum, The Szépmüvészeti Museum (Budapest), The Museum of Modern Art (Lund, Sweden) and The Smithsonian (Washington, DC)