Elizabeth Peyton, the artist known for tiny, dazzling portraits of radiant youth, is now painting tiny, dazzling portraits of radiant middle age. The change is so subtle you can miss it, and it’s not even in all her new pictures, some of which just seem pretty—although one should never bemoan such a delicate touch and honed sense of too-muchness. Yet Peyton’s lavender, lilac, and crimson love letters to the age of innocence are finally reflecting the age of experience. Her deft brushwork and starry-eyed doting are still in evidence, but her color has darkened and her gaze is less moony. Several of her subjects look world-weary, like they’re living life, not just being fabulous. Some artists, like Robert Ryman or On Kawara, aren’t expected to change, because their work is about continuity. But change is built into what Peyton does. That’s why these signs of growth are good.
Peyton’s career took off in November 1993, when she and Gavin Brown (her current dealer, who back then had no gallery) sent out postcards requesting that viewers come to the Chelsea hotel. For two weeks, people went to the desk, asked for the key to room 828, and there beheld drawings of Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, Queen Elizabeth. As innocent and as “girly” as her work seemed, her subjects, scale, and exhibition strategy were inherently critical of the large work and massive gallery exhibitions then in vogue. The show was open 24 hours a day; no personnel were on hand. I went there alone on Thanksgiving and felt like I was in nineteenth-century Paris. According to Brown, about 50 people saw the show. Peyton’s star was ascendant.
Over the next two years, Peyton focused on painting and added modern life to her art. Her new candy-colored work titillated the eye while commenting on the photorealism of Gerhard Richter. Where the cool-as-a-cucumber German claimed to have “loathed subjectivity” and painted soldiers, terrorists, and historical figures “without sentiment,” Peyton used photographs from fan and fashion magazines. Far from feeling detached, Peyton said her subjects evoked a feeling like “I love you; I think you’re the best thing I’ve ever seen.” Since then, she’s painted beautiful, androgynous boys like Sid Vicious, Beck, and Liam Gallagher. We’ve seen Brown (“Meeting him was huge, like Brian Epstein and the Beatles”) and the late gallerist Colin de Land. There have been portraits of angel-faced male artists like Maurizio Cattelan and Rirkrit Tiravanija (to whom she was married for a time), and of course Andy Warhol. In Peyton’s world, these lads were thin, fashionable, and famous forever.
That’s where the problems set in. The times changed, and as Peyton became a star, her paintings became psychically static and claustrophobic. There were startling moments—in her 1999 depiction of the German rocker Jochen Distelmeyer, his baby blues can melt you—but her Prince Charmings seemed lost in time, unthreatening, more elves than flesh and blood. Her visions of modernity floated free of anything vulnerable.
That’s changing, especially in the drawings. Her swoony weightlessness is sprouting roots and gaining gravity. She is painting and drawing more from life. In one picture, of Matthew Barney, he’s sitting slightly hunched. He isn’t just some lambkin; there are circles under his eyes, he stares into the distance and into himself, posing in such a way to accept and reject our gaze. It’s a performance, a surrender, and a protective defense. In her portrait of poet John Giorno, we see him radiating self-awareness and comfort in his older age. In several arresting pictures of Peyton’s girlfriend, we see a severe, pretty woman reading or sleeping. She isn’t an idealized angel; she’s someone with moods, thoughts, and psychic power.
Subtle as these changes are, they are promising for an artist that some have feared has been drifting in her own lighter-than-air meringue style, making bonbon portraits of the cute and famous. We’re getting to see what life is doing to Peyton and what it’s doing to us.