In 2014, the V&A Museum in London held a solo retrospective of the illustrator Barbara Nessim, a show that was lauded for its breadth and exciting sense of glamour and pop. For Lea Freid, the curator behind a current exhibition of Nessim’s early drawings at the Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles, the retrospective wasn’t enough. While a solo show of the V&A’s scale is crucial for cementing the role an image-maker has played in the history of cultural production—especially a female artist like Nessim whose legacy hasn’t been as well-documented as some of her male contemporaries—what a holistic exhibition can’t offer is focus. That’s the reason behind Freid’s.
“If you look at her work in a giant show, you see it as eclectic rather than from the point of view of somebody who has been consistently talented and constantly pushing like Barbara has,” says Freid.
Starting out in the ’60s, Nessim sent samples to every publisher she could, gaining commissions first at “girly” Playboy-esque magazines and then later at Ms. magazine, founded and edited by her roommate Gloria Steinem. Ultimately, Nessim would go on to produce iconic work for the magazines Time and Rolling Stone; brightly-colored pop portraits depicting stars, as well as tributes to the swelling women’s movement like this familiar Time cover in 1982. While she is perhaps most well-known as one of the first pioneering graphic artists to use the computer, that freewheeling aesthetic of rainbows, stars, and hand-scrawled, loose lines of the ’60s and ’70s is also one Nessim helped to create.
The V&A show recognized Nessim’s role in defining a historical aesthetic, but what the exhibition at Little Big Man Gallery encourages is a reading of her watercolors and inks on paper as entities in their own right; not simply as clues contributing to the larger narrative of what Nessim would later become.
Themes such as gender, self-perception, liberation, drugs, and sexuality are key in these pieces, yet they are crucially not didactic; the sketches are emotions transformed into personas, characters speaking of the experience of being an American woman in the ’60s and early ’70s. Her “WomanGirl” series of semi-nude women—which at times veers more into the realm of the androgynous—depicts figures on tiptoes with snaking pink slippers ensnaring and manipulating their feet. With full breasts, no pubic hair, and open underwear, these figures communicate contradiction and restriction: the complexity of being young and female, told on the one hand to be sexy and seductive but in a society that simultaneously demands chastity and discretion.
“As a freelancer, and a woman-owned business, Barbara was very independent for the time,” says Freid. “It’s interesting that she marked not just the date and clients on the back of her commercial drawings, but also the art directors. She was very grateful to the ADs who supported her early on, especially because her style was not what had become standard in the ’60s, it was very original.”
A second crucial reason for the show is that while Nessim is well-known in the field of illustration and design, Freid believes her impact in the art world hasn’t been explored nearly enough yet. During her career, Nessim consciously avoided the role of the “fine artist,” determining that she’d like to thrive instead of starve and suffer; an idea that in itself is in part a feminist statement in the decision to pursue success instead of resign to obscurity. She looked for work that intersected art and commerce in a way Freid describes as being prevalent in today’s creative industry, where the line between art and design is not always clear. In the context of today’s women’s movement, the show of course resonates powerfully too, asserting Nessim’s centrality as predecessor to the bright, assertive work of young illustrators today, like Eye on Design favorites Laura Callaghan and Sara Andreasson.