Nessim & Steinem: Writers, Artists, Activists, Role Models
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This is what 80 and 75 look like? No way.
Gloria Steinem, feminist writer, social activist, and founder of Ms. magazine, meeting audience members at the Bard Graduate Center last week.
Barbara Nessim, illustrator, fine artist and design educator, answering questions about her work and her current solo exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery.
Yes way. When they were young, they hung out together and went on double-dates with their boyfriends. It was the Sixties, and Gloria Steinem, now 80, was dating Robert Benton, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and film director who was art director of Esquire magazine at the time. Barbara Nessim, now 75, was dating Henry Wolf, the legendary art director of Esquire, Harpers Bazaar, and Show. The two couples often went to dinner, and the women became fast friends and roommates who lived together for six years in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment. “We were perfect together,” said Steinem. “We both didn’t cook.” They became each other’s muses and best critics.
I learned all this last Thursday at a standing-room-only event entitled “Gloria Steinem in Conversation with Barbara Nessim,” which was held in conjunction with the exhibition, “Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life” on view at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York through January 11.
(l-r) Gloria Steinem, moderator Marianne Lamonaca, Barbara Nessim. “Gloria came to personify the cause of equality for women,” said Lamonaca, “and Barbara’s work was a form of activism through art.”
“Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life,” fills three floors of the gallery building with Nessim’s work from the 1960s to the present, and includes prints, drawings, paintings, posters, illustrations, and clothing.
According to the exhibition catalog, “Working on both a small and large scale, Nessim retains a fascination with the female form and woman’s place in the world.”
I’d profiled Barbara Nessim for Communication Arts in 2001, when she was chair of the illustration department at Parsons School of Design. She was a major influence in my life, in my decision to give up an office in Manhattan—which, among other things, meant watching the clock every afternoon or evening, shutting down the computer, and running for the train. “Integrate your life,” she advised. “Combine your professional design work, your personal work, your writing, your family relationships, your cooking, your gardening, in one space.”
On Thursday evening, I learned something even more important. There is no reason to not be as full a contributor to civic and artistic life at age 75 or 80 as you were at 25 or 30. Even if you’ve got a decade or two to go, Gloria and Barbara are true role models: way beyond what’s usually considered “retirement age,” you can continue to be relevant, do influential work, be listened to, and, if you choose, look and dress like a hot babe.
Barbara Nessim at the School of Visual Arts, 1986. Photographed by Seiji Kakizaki.
“Ode to the Statue of Liberty 2,” 1982–84. Cibachrome photograph of computer screen. Courtesy of the artist.
Nessim was a huge influence on several generations of young illustrators. She taught at the School of Visual Arts at a time when, to some artists, money was still a dirty word. “I taught my students how to draw, as well as how to negotiate fees for jobs” she said. And she pioneered the computer as a drawing tool. “When I was hired at as illustration chair at Parsons School of Design, illustration students weren’t allowed to use the school’s 30 computers. I told the administration not to consider me unless they were willing to buy computers for everyone.” Nessim restructured the curriculum, grew the department to 35 instructors, and headed the first illustration department in which a computer courses were required.
Nessim’s sketchbooks in her New York studio
“I take my sketchbooks everywhere I go,” Nessim said. These personal images often informed her magazine and advertising illustrations. “I never put my values aside to do commercial work” she asserted.
She was an early convert to digital technology, but no one has ever been a bigger champion of drawing, with colored pencil and ink. Nessim’s studio is filled with shelves of linen-bound sketchbooks, each of which contains six months’ worth of impressions, concepts, and drawings. Just as she’d integrated the personal and professional aspects of her life, she integrated her fine art and illustration work, using the drawings in her sketchbooks—especially the iconic female figures that became her trademark—as jumping-off points for magazine and advertising illustrations.
In 2013, she was honored with a solo exhibition, curated by Douglas Dodds, at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. This year, the exhibition was expanded and brought to the Bard Graduate Center, a research institute in New York City that offers MA and PhD programs and exhibitions and publications related to the decorative arts, material culture, and design history.
All this history was brought to a new audience at Thursday’s conversation. The moderator, Marianne Lamonaca, associate gallery director and chief curator of the BGC, introduced Nessim as “a champion of activism through art.” The evening began with a look at the 1963 work, “Superman Carrying Girl with Green Shoes,” which Lamonaca described as “woman, oppressed, woman all-powerful.” Steinem acknowledged noted that this piece inspired the first Ms. magazine cover in 1972 and that Wonder Woman—not a headless nude in the arms of rescuing Superman—has been an enduring cover image of the magazine ever since.
“Superman Carrying Girl with Green Shoes,” from the series “Coney Island in the Winter,” 1963. Monotype etching; hand-colored with oil. Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum
“Where Sex Was Fun,” 1964. Pen and ink. 12″ x 9″. Published in SHOW:The Magazine of the Arts, March 1964. Art director: Henry Wolf
The evening was filled with personal reminisces. Steinem said that as a newcomer from Ohio, New York City “scared me to death.” She described how, to establish herself as a journalist and research a story for Show magazine, she temporarily became a Playboy bunny. While on the subject of women’s bodies, Nessim noted that art directors of men’s magazines “didn’t really care” about editorial illustrations because “the readers were only looking at the centerfolds,” which afforded her great freedom of expression in creating editorial illustrations. “I didn’t know that I was one of the few women illustrators until I read it in a book,” she added. “And I didn’t know I was a feminist until I was identified as such.” As the conversation continued, it became clear that in both of their lives, being in the forefront of what was happening in popular culture, and hobnobbing with boldface names, was taken for granted.
To see and hear the entire conversation, here’s a 1.5-hour video of the event (which takes approximately 12 minutes to load).
Nessim’s current work, much of it commissioned for spaces such as hotel lobbies and restaurants, continues to explore woman’s bodies and psyches and society’s concepts of beauty; she is working at a larger scale and in media including digital prints on aluminum.
“Sea Pearl,” from the series “Chronicles of Beauty,” 2010. Photo collage, digital print on aluminum. 4′ x 4′
“Ancient Beauty,” from the series “The Model Project,” 2009. Digital print on aluminum. Courtesy of the artist
“Carnival Heat” from the series “Chronicles of Beauty,” 2010. Digital print on aluminum. Courtesy of the artist.
The media have changed, but Nessim’s advice to young artists hasn’t. “Find out who you are,” she says. “There’s only one of you. Mimicking someone else isn’t going to get you anywhere. And sketchbooks are the best way to find out who you are. Pick up a pencil and draw. Observe carefully. Make a still life. Draw from nature. When you find out who you are and let it flow, you will know what you need to do.”
In New York for the holidays? The BGC Gallery is located at 18 West 86th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday, and suggested admission is $7. Group exhibition tours are offered by reservation.
This Friday, December 12, is Sketch Night: The public is invited to an evening of figure sketching in the galleries, where clothed models will pose on two floors of the Nessim exhibit and a teaching artist will provide instruction.
The exhibition is accompanied by the book, Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life, edited by art critic David Galloway. Published by Abrams, the book includes essays by contributors including Roger Black, Douglas Dodds, Milton Glaser, Steve Heller, Gloria Steinem, and Anne Telford.