Video: Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life
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, your skirt had to be a certain length or that you needed to wear gloves in the 50s. These rules that people had for women. The imprint, what your supposed to be like, how your are 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 and has always been exciting. There is an energy field here that I feel, in me, that’s exciting. So I bring that into my work and work brings it out when I go out. I have never had a separation between my life and my work. Because I didn’t have a job, how society saw me as a woman was very different from how they saw a secretary, a nurse, a teacher or somebody who was married. So I never really fit in. I was working but it was how I was working that society couldn’t quite understand.
One of the things that I used to like to do, was that if somebody came over the house, I’d like to do a project together or do something. It was inspiring, all of my friends were artists. It was inspiring to go to their studios to 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 people to satisfy. I worked for Glamour Magazine, Time Magazine, Rolling Stone, Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, Redbook…
This is Start Girl banded with blue wave, its done in 1966, it’s a silk screen done for a shop called Scarabaeus a commission George Beylerian. My idea here was to have a strong woman looking at you directly. I wanted to put the woman on more of a pedestal and just the whole idea of like being powerful, being part of the universe. The border is just as to me important as the woman. So she is part of the world of the piece, not just a single person. I love the colours, I did it in a black line and then gave it to a silk screen person, the artwork, and told them what colours went where with 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 early seventies I created a series called WomenGirls. Whether you were 50,60, 70… people called you a girl. It was sort of thinking about women and the hard work they were doing all of the time to make themselves present. My first show with the WomanGirl series was around 1972, it was at the Corridor Gallery on Prince St when Soho was just bubbling and was just coming up. We put the posters up all over and people took them down; whether they took them down because they liked them or they took them down because it was something they didn’t people to see, I don’t know that. I couldn’t use it in an illustration. I did use it in an illustration for censorship for The New York Times Magazine on an article by Anthony Burgees. It was all about censorship and I did my WomanGirl and I crossed out the breasts and I crossed out the vagina hairs – that was it. People actually though someone had actually censored my work.
One day I was sitting at my drawing table and I get a call from Rolling Stone (Magazine). The art director said ‘Barbara, we want a portrait of John Lennon and I like your simple style’, it was eight years after John Lennon was assassinated. The line quality is what they wanted, so they said one condition is Yoko Ono has to approve it. What I decided to do, and 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, left the whole side of his head open because he is was no longer here and made him older and… she loved it.
Computers weren’t even around, there were no computers at all. I would think about computers as something that a big corporation has -as like IBM or something - to pay your bills or to automate something, not in terms of art. I started doing these very very simple simple heads because I wanted to understand that I had a line, 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. Very simple shades and when I did the polygons I thought that looks like the Statue of Liberty. I can then do that and make that more interesting in terms of a picture. So what it was doing was investigating what the computer could actually do and that’s how the Ode to the Statue of Liberty came about.
The flag series, started with my thinking about migration, immigration, integration and population growth, and how people think about ‘A’ people of different countries they have preconceived ideas in what they are thinking about. When you see the flag you think ‘oh, Americans’ you think what ever you think about them. When you walk up to the flag the flag disappears and you get to see the drawings and you get to see that people are doing everyday 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 the early computer art, the collections of early computer art, the V&A embraces all of the different aspects of art and design and… culture really.