On the day I saw ‘Live Forever’, Elizabeth Peyton’s mid-career retrospective at the New Museum, the stock market plunged again and it felt like the beginning of the end or, worse, the beginning of a beginning. Unfair as it is to saddle Peyton with the burden of economic coincidence, the grim global mood did add a deliciously melancholic, fin-de-siècle edge to her gathering of pensive, painterly young souls. All those rock stars, artists, dealers and romantically wasted boys with their blue-black curls and electric Edvard Munchian auras – and those were the flush years! Not that it started that way.
Much has been made of Peyton’s show in 1993 in Room 828 of New York’s seedy, arty Chelsea Hotel. Little seen but totally legendary, and curated by Gavin Brown (who at the time worked at 303 Gallery and has since been Peyton’s dealer) in the midst of the dry discourse and market doldrums of the 1990s’ contemporary art world, the show ran for just two weeks; visitors stopped by the front desk for the room key and then let themselves in to view Peyton’s winsome charcoal drawings of Napoleon Bonaparte, Ludwig II of Bavaria and Princess Elizabeth as youthful would-be emperors, kings and queens destined for greatness. How apropos!
Napoleon (1991), with its tattered edges, ornate frame and wispy, self-consciously student vibe, seems as much relic as art work. The oldest piece in ‘Live Forever’, which was organized more or less chronologically, it forecast Peyton’s central role in the resurgence of figurative painting in the 1990s and also her place alongside artists who in the same decade began to use the exhibition itself as an expressive medium. It’s fitting that this retrospective became an occasion for the New York art cognoscenti to engage in some self-reflexive nostalgia about how much has changed since the early 1990s. (Doesn’t it seem almost quaint that an art show in a hotel room was once a novel event, let alone a conceptual vehicle?)
Curator Laura Hoptman’s catalogue essay on that topic gave me the queasy sense of being a stranger amid backslapping old chums. But, after all, being on the outside looking in is a fine place to start with Peyton, who got famous (within certain circles) by painting really famous rock stars and celebrities, mostly from newspaper and magazine photos. At the New Museum high-colour personages such as Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious and the Oasis boys stared, slouched and appeared generally attitudinal on the museum’s gallery walls. Recognizable but extreme, Peyton’s depictions suggest overdevelopment of some traits, atrophy of others. In John Lydon (1994) angular, anxious introspection replaces Johnny Rotten’s public bravado, while Blue Liam (1996) depicts Oasis singer Liam Gallagher as a pallid, full-lipped Rasputin, far from Britpop’s mellow cool.
Peyton passionately adores her subjects – and don’t you too, just a bit at least? She has said that she has been compelled to make pictures of people since she was little, but even in her most intimate portraits of close friends and her partner, Pati Hertling, she is unconcerned with likenesses and instead supplements slippery, broad brushstrokes with an occasional telling detail. Isn’t there something terribly pitiable and totally human in the way Jackie O’s sensible brown loafer (designer, surely, but plain as can be) hits the ground in Jackie and John (Jackie Fixing John’s Hair) (1999), while her doomed son walks a step ahead casually suffering his mother’s attention?
Everything else is off-kilter except that one square footfall. And, of course, there is that intuitive palette, which has mellowed and browned out a little from her earlier luscious, close-range jewel tones. It carried the show where it sagged in the middle, under the weight of painting after painting of skinny-boy artists Tony, Ben, Nick and Spencer. Spencer Walking (2001) is the lively exception to the rule, and it predicts her jaunty West 11th Street, Greenwich Avenue, and 7th Avenue, New York City, 2008 (2008).
The last works from 2007 and 2008 – that cityscape, a pair of still lifes, a monochrome image of Georgia O’Keeffe and a painting of Matthew Barney that recalls Alice Neel’s stylized portraiture – were restless, subdued and intensely personal. A portrait of Michelle and Sasha Obama, added to the show the day after the US presidential election, is a quintessentially Peyton mix of media icon, historic instance, and hopeful tribute. ‘Live Forever’? The title comes from an Oasis song; it’s a reasonable choice, but ‘Sentimental Journey’ might have been more apt.