As a conceptual editorial illustrator in the '60s, Barbara Nessim broke ground on multiple fronts: technology, design, and gender. In February of 2013, her first retrospective museum exhibition, Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life, curated by Douglas Dodds, opened at the Victoria + Albert Museum in London, coinciding with a stunning monograph published by Harry Abrams. That show opens tomorrow at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, and will be on view until January 11, 2015. It is not to be missed.
Nessim entered the men's club of illustration by walking right through the front door. In generations before her, women illustrators found niches in fashion and children’s books, but editorial departments were far more unwelcoming. Yet by the early ‘60s, Nessim’s illustrations started appearing, ironically, in a new wave of intelligent men’s girlie magazines that focused on lifestyle, culture and sex, following the Esquire and Playboy models. Her work for them was not the typical Saturday Evening Post fare: There was a certain femininity in terms of her soft lines and muted colors, yet the were conceptually and psychologically demonstrative. There was nothing submissive or sweet about her distinct mixture of decorative elegance with hardboiled symbolism, which featured a bit of then-risqué nudity.
“As an artist you had freedom,” she told me in an 2012 interview for an essay I wrote in her monograph about her work for Gent, Nugget, Gentlemen, and Escapade. “The art directors used artists they loved and there was nothing you could not do.” Eventually, she also worked for the innovative New York Magazine where design director Milton Glaser and art director Walter Bernard created career-defining opportunities for dozens of young conceptual illustrators. New York initially published Ms magazine in 1971 as an insert. Nessim, who was the editor Gloria Steinem’s roommate from 1962 to 1967, became a regular contributor, starting with the first stand-alone issue in January 1972.