Twelve Heads

Click artwork to view details.

Twelve Heads is an etching and aquatint on paper by artist Nicole Eisenman.

Eisenman is largely a figurative artist, meaning that throughout her many years of painting, she has focused primarily on depicting the human form.1 Despite this uniformity in subject, each figure she renders is done so in a unique way, an intentional practice that links to Eisenman’s belief that “different images” or in this case, people, “ask to be painted in different ways.”2

This philosophy is made clear in Twelve Heads, which includes a grid-like arrangement of twelve portraits. Each portrait is wildly unlike any other in the composition, which is a theme that prevails across Eisenman's body of work. The Whitney Museum of Art argues that this characteristic of her work “gives the impression that each of [Eisenman’s] subjects, even those sharing a scene with other figures, exists in an isolated psychological space."3

With this in mind, I encourage you to look closely and spend time considering each of the figures as individuals. Are there certain emotions, personality traits, or states of mind you see reflected in the way Eisenman depicts each portrait?

One figure that my eyes keep returning to is in the second row, third from the left: the dark and narrow portrait, positioned between the individual with a large eye and the pointillism portrait.

What I notice first is the way this figure’s arm seems to be clutching a dark square that looks to me like a notebook or journal. Their body language feels very possessive and I also read a bit of betrayal in their expression. I can’t help but create a narrative for this person, wondering if someone has broken their trust and caused them to feel this kind of hurt and possessiveness over what they are holding. 

Stylistically, the darker, more shadowed appearance of this figure, along with the physically long shape of the face, contributes to the overall melancholy essence of this man. 

Creating each portrait in such a unique style beckons us as viewers to ask questions, as if Eisenman herself is inviting us to use these qualities to create our own storylines for these characters and their states of mind. 

What stories do you see told in these portraits? Do you agree that these figures exist separately from one another, or do you feel they are bound by a common story, experience, or emotion?

 - Mallory Schultz, Art Collections & Exhibitions Fellow 2019 - 2020

[1] MacArthur Foundation, “Painter Nicole Eisenman, 2015 MacArthur Fellow, “ MacArthur Foundation video, 3:04, September 28, 2015,
[2] “Nicole Eisenman,” Whitney Museum of American Art, May 25, 2020 accessed,
[3] Ibid.