Feature

Exhibit of the week: Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton

Elizabeth Peyton's paintings have helped revive the old form of portraiture. More than 100 of her portraits are being shown at the retrospective at the New Museum in New York.

Exhibit of the weekLive Forever: Elizabeth PeytonNew Museum, New YorkThrough Jan. 11

Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings at first seem like modest achievements, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. “Few are much larger than your face,” and their sketchy style can make them seem dashed off. But don’t underestimate them. These “lovingly rendered” paintings are some of the most important artworks being made today. Over the past decade and a half, Peyton’s “wan, incandescent paintings of youth-culture royalty” have helped revive an old form—portraiture—that most artists had considered passé. In the process, the 43-year-old has helped “open the floodgates” to a new generation of painters. More than 100 of Peyton’s portraits are united in her current retrospective at New York’s New Museum.

Peyton initially gained fame in 1994 with a series of paintings depicting Kurt Cobain, said Patricia Zohn in HuffingtonPost.com. The Nirvana frontman had recently committed suicide, and Peyton based her works on magazine photographs. She soon created striking images of other entertainment icons, including Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, Liam Gallagher of Oasis, and Leonardo DiCaprio. No matter who her ostensible subject is, however, “Peyton paints basically the same person over and over again”: She’s fond of androgynous figures with “aquiline features” and a certain passive quality. Her painting style and choice of subjects sometimes seem reminiscent of David Hockney or Andy Warhol, but she’s hardly a pop artist. Her paintings lack the ironic gloss of most pop art—in fact, they can be embarrassingly earnest.

That earnestness lends Peyton’s paintings of fey young men a “startling intensity,” said Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker. But it sometimes can make them seem the product of a sort of schoolgirl crush, which has led some critics to dismiss her work as “sentimental kitsch.” Yet in recent years, Peyton’s work has matured. She has stopped painting from photographs and begun painting live subjects, such as friends and art-world colleagues. Here three paintings of fellow artist Matthew Barney show “how far Peyton has traveled from the Kurt Cobain paintings.” They capture not only the external beauty of their subject but his inner life—“somber concentration, deep-set blue eyes, and powerful hands.” Peyton’s paintings are still as pretty as they’ve always been. But now the “unembarrassed emphasis on visual pleasure” has been combined with a desire to penetrate beneath the subject’s surface.

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