Barbara Nessim is an artist whose daring and prolific work, spanning five decades, defies narrow categorization. In its broadest sense, her artistic production has straddled fine art and illustration, all the while, 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’s work always begins with line or color, independent of medium, context or application. Her vibrant colorful imagery is figurative, conceptual and yet also symbolic and deeply intuitive. Its power and enduring relevance lies in its elegant fusion of skillful technique, deep cultural engagement and pop culture resonance. Nessim’s artworks, as her biography, are the story of New York City over the past five decades, the story of evolving gender equality and the story of shifting artistic and cultural landscapes. Her works have been exhibited and collected internationally, including recently at the V&A and the Bard Graduate Center Gallery.
As a young, single, professional woman in the early 1960s, her career as an illustrator broke conventions of all sorts. Surrounded and supported early on by prominent illustrators, Nessim became part of a broadly defined milieu of socially minded individuals working within a publicly visible arena. A Bronx native, 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, the era’s prevailing movement in art, Nessim privately made small-scale paintings with narrative emphasis— short visual stories evoking situations between people. With the encouragement and support of several key people, in particular Robert Weaver, Nessim’s professor at Pratt, she soon caught the attention of Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Henry Wolf, Robert Benton, among others, who welcomed the much junior Nessim into their circle.
The 1960s were a decade of rich and varied experimentation for Nessim. One of her first series, Man and Machine represents an early example of Nessim’s unique visual vocabulary, in which stylistic echoes of German Expressionism combine with distinctly New York subject matter. Other early series include those drawn from Polaroids Nessim took documenting Broadway or Coney Island in the Winter, arguably among her first forays into feminist commentary, which features a costumed Superman whisking away a nude and headless female in his arms, while cupping one of her breasts. Her non-traditional use of watercolor, monotype etching and lithography as well as embedded text in image, became signature features bridging the divide between Nessim’s fine artwork and commercial illustration. Dozens and dozens of sketchbooks up to the present day, shelved chronologically in her studio, reflect the creative traffic between her different modes of production. Since the early 1960s, while most professional illustrators went to the library for reference and inspiration, Nessim has had her sketchbooks, as both an aesthetic sounding board and also a platform for ideating her commercial work.
Resourceful and ambitious, Nessim navigated the male-dominated business and advertising culture of the 1960s with audacity and great success. Her first big illustration job was a Doubleday book jacket design, which she got by hand-printing personalized linoleum cuts to art directors at numerous publishing houses in New York. Her portfolio for obtaining new work even courageously included a fake ad from Seventeen Magazine, in which she replaced the published image with her own drawing. Prominent themes in Nessim’s work related to the social expectations of women’s relationships with men, with each other and with the world more broadly, found consonance in the mutual influence of Nessim’s lasting friendship with Gloria Steinem. Roommates for several years in the mid-Sixties, the two collaborated on a fumetti, “The Adventures of Max & Jennie”. The plotline even roughly follows the story of their friendship at that point, lending insight and advancing perspective into the lives of young independent women.
The lengthy and impressive list of publications in which her illustrations have appeared include, New York Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Essence Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Ms. Magazine, Print Magazine, Savvy, and Working Women. Many of the initial illustration jobs she did out of art school were for self-styled “girlie” magazines such as Swank and Nugget, akin to Playboy. The inclusion of her works was meant to elevate and legitimize the soft porn photos of women and offered Nessim surprising freedom and early exposure. The mere fact that these publications were receptive to her style when others were not, speaks volumes about Nessim’s bold work for the time. Her unshakable pragmatism obscured her conception of the progressive, even transgressive nature of her illustrations, which include gender ambiguous figures that are often androgynous and at times, cross-dressed (as in, The Bride as Groom and Groom as Bride, 1968).
Her figurative drawings frequently fuse human form with geometric or abstract shapes, composing strange and beautiful juxtapositions. The Only Square Breasted Girl in Captivity (1967), for example, titled on the drawing itself, depicts a dark-skinned female with erect orange nipples, challenging portrayals of both gender and race. Undoubtedly responding to mid-century social expectations for women as well as subjects of male fantasy, Nessim’s clever and insightful counter-narratives go beyond strictly conforming to feminist art’s rejection of sexualized treatments of women’s bodies. Nessim’s engagement with cultural conceptions of womanhood, female identity and conventions of beauty continued into the 1970s. These aesthetic threads blossomed further in her WomanGirl series of fashion design-style drawings of oddly boyish yet romantic lanky nudes with no pubic hair wearing high-laced ballet pointe shoes. Flanked by ribbons in primary and secondary colors, Nessim’s WomanGirls sustained her iconic use of rainbow imagery. Across her oeuvre, Nessim’s exquisite sense of color in eye-popping variety was cultivated by her part-time work with textiles. She designed coloring and pattern in addition to sketches for engineered prints, processes she relates to Color Field painting, concentrating on relationships between colors and mixing hues.
Alongside and in complement to her artistic practice, Nessim fostered an academic career. When she began in 1967, she was one of only two women teaching at the School of Visual Arts. Over the years there, she taught courses in design, media concepts, illustration, drawing and computer art, before leaving to chair the Illustration Department at Parsons School of Design in 1991. Her fundamentally pioneering impulse propelled her to the forefront of computer generated graphic art in the early 1980s. By way of a fortuitous series of opportunities, TIME Inc. invited her to be an Artist-in-Residence in their Video Information Services Department, which granted her after-hours access to their computers. Fueled by a passion for new mediums, the interactive immediacy seduced Nessim. The primitive software available challenged her to be expressive within the limited visual language of jagged line drawings. Her artistic experimentation with computer assisted works continued through an affiliation with IBM. In the 1990s, her expansive Random Access Memories series, which treats contemporary issues such as migration, population growth, diversity, translates the intimacy and insight of her earlier illustration work into a much larger scale for both public installations and private collections.