Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life

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Video Transcript

Barbara Nessim

The key influences in my work and what comes out naturally are relationships between women, and relationships between men and women and relationships between women and the world. The whole idea of wearing makeup or your skirt had to be a certain length or that you needed to wear gloves from the 50’s. These rules that people had for women. The imprint, what you’re supposed to be like, how you’re supposed to act. When I would draw it and see it in front of me, it made me feel better about who I was in the world.

Living in New York was exciting, is exciting, has always been exciting. There’s an energy field here that I feel in me that’s exciting and so I bring that into my work and my work brings it out when I go out. I’ve never really had a separation between my life and my work. Because I didn’t have a job, how house society saw me as a woman was very different to how they saw a secretary, a nurse, a teacher or somebody who was married and so I never really fit in. I was working but it was how I was working that society didn’t quite understand.

One of the things that I used to like to do was if someone came over to my house I used to like to do a project together It was inspiring. All my friends were artists and I liked to go to their studios and see what they were doing.

My influences in my work came from my sketchbooks, when I sat down and did a drawing just for myself it would just be free-flowing. When I did a job for a magazine it would be very structured. It would be working with a script, sketches, an art director, an editor. I had all these many people to satisfy.

I worked for Glamour magazine, I worked for TIME magazine, Rolling Stone, Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, Redbook.


Star Girl Banded with Blue Wave (1966)

This is Star Girl Banded with Blue wave, it’s done in 1966. It’s a silkscreen done for a shop called Scarabeaus commissioned by George Beylerian. My idea here was to have a strong woman looking at you directly and I wanted to put the woman on more of a pedestal and the whole idea of being powerful and part of the universe. The boarder is just as important to me as the woman, so she is part of the world of the piece, not just a single person. And I love the colours. I did it in a black line and then gave it to a silkscreen person (the artwork) and told them what colours went where with the colour chips and that’s how they got the colour so I already knew what I wanted for the colour. I wanted her white inside so she wasn’t any colour, she was all colour and she could be anybody.


The WomanGirl series (1970s)

In the early 70’s I created a series called WomanGirls. Whether you were 50, 60, 70, people still called you a girl. So it was thinking about women and the hard work they are doing al the time to kind of make themselves present. My first show with the WomanGirl series was around 1972 at the Carter Gallery on Prince Street when Soho was just bubbling and just coming up and we put the posters up all over, and people took them down. Whether they took them down because they liked them or took them down because it was something they didn’t want people to see, I don’t know that. I couldn’t use them in an illustration. And I did do an illustration about censorship in the New York Times Magazine on an article by Anthony Burgess and it was all about censorship. I did my WomanGirl and I crossed out the breasts and I crossed out the vagina hairs and that was it, people thought that someone actually censored my work.


The John Lennon cover for Rolling Stone (1988)

One day I was sitting at my drawing table and I get a call from Rolling Stone. The art director said Barbara, we want a portrait of John Lennon. I like your simple style, and it was eight years after John Lennon was assassinated, the line quality is what they wanted. One caveat, Yoko Ono has to approve it.  What I decided to do, thinking about John Lennon, he got killed in a violent manner, he’s now in the cosmos. So I took blue for the sky and red for the violence and merged them together to purple. I left the whole side of his head open because he was no longer here, made him older, and she loved it.


Early computer graphics and Ode to the Statue of Liberty (1982 – 1984)

Computers weren’t even around. There was no computers at all. I would think about computers as something that a big corperation has like IBM or something to pay your bills or automate something but not in the terms of art. I started doing these very simple heads as I wanted to understand; I had a line, a dot, a dot, an arc, a rectangle, a circle. I had six modes to work in and six colours, that’s all I had to work with. So very simple shapes, and when I did the polygons I thought oh that looks like the Statue of Liberty, I can then do that and make it more interesting in terms of a picture. So what I was doing was investigating what the computer could actually do, and that’s how the Ode to the Statue of Liberty came about.


Flag Series (1987)

The Flag Series started with my thinking about migration, immigration, integration and population growth. And how people when they think about a ‘people’ of different countries, they have a preconceived idea of what they’re thinking about. And when you see a flag you just say ‘Oh, Americans’ and you just think whatever you think about them. And then when you walk up to the flag, the flag disappeares and you get to see the drawings and you get to see that people are doing every day life things. I just wanted to break the whole preconception of what people think and express that.


I love the V&A. They were the first ones to take in computer art – the early collections of computer art. The V&A embraces all the different aspects of art and design and culture really.










Artist and illustrator Barbara Nessim is the subject of the V&A display, ‘Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life’. V&A Channel paid a visit to her New York studio to discuss the many themes addressed by her work, ranging from gender-roles to the creative energy of the city she calls home. Nessim also considers the development of computer art, and explains how she came to be a pioneer of the medium.

V&A Channel paid a visit to Nessim's studio to discuss the many themes addressed by her work, ranging from gender-roles to the creative energy of the city she calls home...