In our era of non-stop celebrity gossip and reality-TV shows, painter Elizabeth Peyton makes high art out of high-profile lives. The first full survey exhibit of her work at an American museum, “Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton” at the New Museum in New York, contains more than 100 paintings and drawings of thoroughly modern, sometimes recognizable, lives.
Her idealized but unglamorous portraits take some of the shine off the famous musicians, artists and designers she paints: They seem beautiful, but ordinary. She’s on a first name-basis with many of them, whether she knows them or not: “Marc” is a portrait of fashion designer Marc Jacobs, a friend; “Kurt” is deceased rock musician Kurt Cobain. The exhibit also contains several portraits of friends not well known to the public. While the works make for a fun guessing game of Name that Celebrity, they also leave the viewer somewhat self-conscious. In Peyton’s attempt to make them seem more normal, the viewer actually becomes more obsessed by the celebrity.
[View a slide show of Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton
Peyton’s often compared to Andy Warhol, another artist famous for making images of the famous. But Peyton’s paintings bear little resemblance to Warhol’s screen prints, using brushstrokes versus reproduction, favoring intimacy versus glamour.
Celebrity-factor aside, critics have hailed her paintings for their vibrancy, color, and confident, painterly style. Although criticized at times for her preoccupation with pop stars, Peyton’s approach is sometimes credited for helping bring figurative painting back into style in the ’90s.
While the title “Live Forever,” comes from a song by British rock band Oasis, whose frontman Liam Gallagher appears in some of Peyton’s work, it’s hard not to associate the exhibit title with Cobain, whose portrait she painted several times after his suicide in 1994 — paintings that helped turn the spotlight on her.
“Live Forever” has been included in many critics “best of 2008” lists, including the New Yorker and ArtNet. After closing Jan. 11 in New York, “Live Forever” will move to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and then to galleries in London and the Netherlands.