Elizabeth Peyton - Biography and Legacy
American Figurative painter
Danbury, Connecticut, United States
Biography of Elizabeth Peyton
Elizabeth Peyton was born and raised in Danbury, Connecticut. She learned to draw and paint with her left hand, having been born with just forefinger and thumb on her right (with which she holds her work). From an early age, Peyton was interested in celebrities as subject matter, starting with the tennis and ice-skating personalities of the 1970s. Speaking of how she selects her subjects, she has explained: "I don't really choose. It just sort of has to happen. I start listening to something or I'm seeing somebody a lot or seeing their art. And then I just really want to make a picture of them."
Aside from drawing and painting, the young Peyton's passions included reading and listening to music. She was introduced to the British punk band The Clash by her older sister and Peyton recalls the reassurance that this music gave her. "Hearing those records, I felt like I wasn't such a freak, that there was a bigger world than Connecticut, where I was going crazy." Later, she would start her own band, which along with drawing and painting helped her interact with people "from a safe distance." Peyton was extremely shy.
These various creative activities came naturally to Peyton, who later remarked that she did not realize the extent of her passion for them at the time. "It was a surprise to me, actually, how determined I was," she said. "It seemed so normal." This possibly owes something to Peyton's upbringing. She has described her mother, a painter, and father, a writer (both also owners of a Connecticut candle-making business), as "kind of bohemian," such that an appropriate rebellion for her as a young teen was to entertain the thought of becoming a stockbroker rather than an artist.
Education and Early Training
At seventeen, Peyton moved to New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts (1983-87). By this time, her interest in making figurative paintings of particular personalities was well established, and often went hand in hand with her passion for reading. At college, for example, Peyton made drawings of Lucien de Rubempré from Balzac's Lost Illusions. She saw parallels between this book - in which de Rubempré, a writer from the countryside, finds his way in Parisian society - and her own position in the New York art world. In other drawings and paintings, Peyton combined portraits of her friends (painted from photographs) with those of characters from her books. Unfortunately for the artist, these didn't catch on. She has described her attempts to offer commissions while still at school as "a disaster."
Peyton struggled to establish herself as an artist after graduating in 1987 and has described these years as a difficult time in her life. "I was living with my ex-boyfriend in a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side... I'd lost my job [as an artist's assistant] ... I didn't have any money, and I was so ashamed of myself." Reading helped her to weather this difficult period and inspired her most pivotal portrait - the young Napoleon, drawn from the cover of a biography by Vincent Cronin. The artist has described how in reading the book, she understood the importance of individual people in the world. "It hit me that one person can totally change the world. I understood that was what I wanted to do, that this is why I would make portraits."
Her interest in portraiture came at a time of little enthusiasm for figurative art, at least within the art world, but she nevertheless identified the importance of portraiture in the "real world" in which people enjoy making and looking at images of themselves and each other. For Peyton, this was an opportunity to explore an undervalued area in art. While some contemporaries were "horrified" by her unfashionable interest (her paintings were supposedly not "cynical" enough and placed too much emphasis on visual pleasure), others recognized the populist appeal of her work.
In the early 1990s, Peyton met art dealer Gavin Brown, who championed the artist's popular appeal. She was drawn to his "brutish" character, which she felt would prevent her work from becoming too "sweet," and has spoken of their mutual respect and admiration. The two put on an exhibition in 1993, which included charcoal and ink drawings of Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and Queen Elizabeth II. It was held in room 828 of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, to which viewers had to request the key at reception. Although fewer than fifty people saw the exhibition, it made the artist's name. The critic Jerry Saltz observed "you get lost in her work the way you do in a book" and praised the way in which Peyton captured "ephemeral historical moments." London gallerist Sadie Coles, who has represented Peyton in the UK since 1997, purchased the charcoal drawing of Napoleon. She described being drawn to the "romance" of the drawing and the "delight" in Peyton's work, in juxtaposition to the conceptual art that was most popular in the contemporary art scene of the time.
Peyton's next exhibition, also with Brown, took place two years later. It was based on pop and rock icons and featured several images of the recently deceased singer Kurt Cobain. The exhibition received mixed reviews that set the tone for a debate as to whether or not Peyton, with her populist portraits, could be considered a serious artist. For example Guardian critic Jon Savage observed "[Peyton's] work is reminiscent of those 1960s fan magazine competitions: young women around the world sending in their drawings of Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, John Lennon," though he also acknowledged it as an "often overlooked feminine response to pop." Similarly, Sarah Valdez wrote in Art in America, "It's at once silly and extremely clever for her to make work that hangs around like so many posters of celebrities on a pining teenager's bedroom wall."
A third pivotal exhibition, Projects 60, took place in 1997 at MoMA and featured Peyton's work alongside that of John Currin and Luc Tuymans. The literature surrounding this exhibition swung the debate, as it positioned Peyton as not just a traditional figurative painter and celebrity admirer, but an artist taking a critical view of and approach to contemporary portrait painting itself. As she became more established, many critics perceived a change in her style, with more confident line work and more of the canvas left blank (leaving behind the compulsion to fill the whole space). As well as paintings and drawings, Peyton began to make prints and to make use of new materials such as handmade papers and various colored inks. She has said of printmaking, "It's a very free medium. Like painting was when I started, when no one was looking."
Furthermore, while her subject matter remained figurative, Peyton began to move away from fictional and historical figures, in favor of her own contemporaries. These included her friends and partners such as Maurizio Cattelan, Jonathan Horowitz, Piotr Uklański, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Their images were reproduced in art and style magazines, where their "sharp-cheekboned, floppy-haired" aesthetic was in tune with the tastes of the time. Many of these contemporary subjects became famous in their own right - among them Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist of interventions and happenings, whom Peyton married in 1991. The two were married for 15 years. She recalls, "He just smiled at me in a certain way, and I just thought, 'I'll marry you." Peyton has since been involved with men and women, including artists Klara Liden, Tony Just (to whom she was drawn, in part, on account of his looking like the youthful Napoleon), and curator Pati Hertling. She has spoken positively about marriage and commitment, in particular being able to join names with a partner and create a legal, historical record.
Today Peyton's work is known internationally, and she is particularly popular in the United States and United Kingdom. In 2003, her first self-portrait was selected for inclusion in the prestigious Whitney Biennial (of the following year) and appeared on the exhibition poster, marking her as a contemporary painter of note. In 2006 she was named as one of the 100 Most Influential New Yorkers by New York magazine, on account of having "brought portraiture into the 21st century." Cementing her reputation, the first survey of her works at an American institution followed two years later with the New Museum exhibition Live Forever.
Although she is best known as a painter, Peyton is also a keen photographer. This medium allows her to produce more spontaneous images, which, according to author Richard Klein, "reveal a more informal side to Peyton's aesthetic, in which the intrinsic serendipities of photographic exposure and development are allowed full play." From an early age, the artist saw photography as "a way of being distant from people," but has now moved away from this period in which she would take photographs almost constantly.
Today, she works both from life and from photographs, though she has spoken of one particular advantage to the former as spending time with her subjects. "A big element of the picture is that it's a record of two people being in one room together at one time ... It's time spent together that's not about socializing or eating or the normal activities people share." As such, her portraits are not just likenesses but take into account her sitters' qualities and her own feelings towards them. She resists any description of her work as autobiographical, which for her is too "literal" an interpretation. Peyton sees painting as a transformative process more than a way of recording the presence of particular people in her life.
The artist's social life is nevertheless reflected in her work, inasmuch as her friends are often her subjects. She has close relationships with several artists and fashion designers, including Marc Jacobs and Dries Van Noten. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that some critics note the resemblance between Peyton's work with its elongated, androgynous figures and fashion illustration. Calvin Tomkins for The New Yorker, describes the artist herself as exuding style. "Peyton is slim, poised, and direct. Her clothes are understated but carefully chosen ... Her dark hair is cut very short, gamine style. She smiles often, and looks you right in the eye when she speaks." Her three tattoos include a drawing after Delacroix, a Napoleonic crest, and Ludwig II's crown.
Since 2007, Peyton has combined her portraiture with still life in works such as Pati and Flowers (2007), Justin Bieber and Grey Roses (2010), Flowers, Lichtenstein, Parsifal (2011), and Berlin, Hyacinth, and Black Teapot (2014). These paintings bring the intimacy of portraiture to the more reserved discipline of still life painting. They also more explicitly place the portrait in its context, situating Peyton's feelings towards her sitters in a time and place.
Peyton has also collaborated with fellow artists. In 2009 she worked with fine artist Matthew Barney on Blood of Two, a performance and exhibition based at a former slaughterhouse on the Greek island of Hydra. The work explored the rituals of the slaughterhouse and the customs of the island. She has also collaborated with multimedia artist Jonathan Horowitz on an exhibition about repression, Secret Life, which uses horticultural motifs to explore human sexuality. Peyton's portrait/still life combinations were particularly important to this exhibition, with plants foregrounding paintings of couples as if to censor them.
Since the late 2000s, Peyton has also ventured into cityscapes, exhibiting small paintings of New York City, including one of an intersection near her gym. "I got stuck on it," she explains, suggesting the same momentary fixation that the artist has to particular people. Art historian Nadia Tscherny has called cityscapes, like portraiture, a "critically neglected genre," with many critics excited about where this new exploration might lead. Nevertheless it is still largely portraits that captivate Peyton and for which she is known.
Today, the artist's working practice demonstrates a mixture of confidence and anxiety. She enjoys the thrill of working under pressure and will prepare for exhibitions at the last minute, stating that maintaining this momentum all the time would be "too much." To relieve stress, she runs and swims, whilst listening to her much-loved music. Like working under pressure, Peyton enjoys the element of chance that traveling has on her work, and although she is based in New York, moves around often.
In the same vein, the artist has described her pride at seeing her work in museums yet does not let herself become complacent. "After every picture I feel like it is all over. I cannot count on tomorrow," she has said. Her worst fear is to lose the passion and curiosity that drive her to make her art. To current students, she advises, "It's OK just to paint. Because 'just painting' is not nothing. It's huge and hard just to paint, just to be free."
The Legacy of Elizabeth Peyton
Peyton (alongside her contemporaries John Currin and Luc Tuymans) has been credited with the revival of figurative painting in the 1990s. When asked by arts writer Dodie Kazanjian what drew her to the genre, she responded, "I felt that you could see a person's time in their face - especially the particular moment when they're about to become what they'll become ... They just shine, and everybody around them can feel it."
She is inspired to portray her subjects out of a sense of admiration, fascination, and/or curiosity, but does not enjoy being called a painter of celebrities, claiming that her subjects' fame is incidental to their appeal. "People who are good at what they do often become well known, and I'm interested in making pictures of artists whose work inspires me." Nevertheless, many critics see themes of "idolatry" and "obsession" in her work. This and the connotation of celebrity have led some to compare her to Andy Warhol.
Another tendency among art historians and critics is to group Peyton with painters such as her contemporaries John Currin, Glenn Brown, and Luc Tuymans. The three are figurative painters whose work demonstrates a critical awareness (some suggest almost to the point of parody) of the genre within which they are working. Curator Laura Hoptman was behind the coming together of Currin, Tuymans, and Peyton in Projects 60 (MoMA, 1997) and acknowledges her own role in shaping a more conceptualist reading of Peyton's work, as well as championing its simplicity.
Critics of a conceptualist interpretation counter that Peyton's commitment to portraying the people she admires defies theorization. The artist herself refers to her work as "pictures of people" as opposed to portraits and has always considered herself a populist. Peyton's art dealer Gavin Brown has added, "She's doing something very simple in a very complicated age, and it can easily be misunderstood and trivialized." This balance of realism and conceptualism, popular culture and high art has, as critic Calvin Tomkins suggests, provoked viewers and critics to question our attitudes about art and art making.
As the artist's near-contemporary and fellow figurative painter Cecily Brown has acknowledged, Peyton (alongside Brown herself, Marlene Dumas, Jenny Saville, Cindy Sherman, and Lisa Yuskavage) is among "few women [artists] ... commanding high prices." Brown and Peyton, together with abstract artist Julie Mehretu, were described in the press as a "sisterhood of artists" when the three received awards at the New Museum in 2018 (and, on hearing the news of this honor, reportedly went out for lunch together).
Yet, the androgyny in Peyton's work, alongside her reluctance to theorize about it, perhaps contributes to a lack of feminist critique of the artist. Nadia Tscherny is one author to have explored this avenue, claiming that Peyton, alongside fellow painters Marlene Dumas and Catherine Opie, explores very current notions of identity, sexuality, and beauty through the female gaze. In spite of her interest in (androgynous) physical beauty, Peyton questions "the monolithic concept of the gaze as a sexist assertion of superiority and control."