Elizabeth Peyton's endearing, jewel-like portraits
are frequently, and transparently, based on photographic ephemera:
newspaper images, film stills, vintage black-and-white prints. Her own
snapshots, taken over the last two decades with 35-millimeter, Polaroid
and, most recently, digital cameras, are an important but rarely
Some 50 photographs by Ms. Peyton are now on view
here at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in "Elizabeth Peyton:
Portrait of an Artist." Ms. Peyton, born in Danbury, Conn., is the
recipient of the 2006 Larry Aldrich Award (honoring an artist who has
had "a significant impact on visual culture"). Some might say that her
paintings of friends, lovers and famous faces reflect rather than
influence that culture; they are steeped in the elixirs of youth, beauty
and celebrity infatuation.
With a Peyton survey scheduled to open in Manhattan at the New Museum of
Contemporary Art in October, the Aldrich's exhibition tries to
deconstruct the mystique surrounding Ms. Peyton's paintings, emphasizing
her social-documentary ambitions rather than her technical facility or
The title is misleading — this is a portrait of a scene, not a self. A
photograph at the entrance to the exhibition shows Ms. Peyton taking a
snapshot into a mirror, hiding beneath the flashbulb glare and a pair of
reflective sunglasses. That is about as much of her as we see.
Ms. Peyton cites as inspiration the studio portraiture of Nadar, Alfred
Stieglitz and Robert Mapplethorpe, who all photographed their friends
and intimates. Her own aesthetic is much more casual, even amateurish.
Photographs (particularly those taken with nondigital cameras) are
under- or overexposed, badly composed and out of focus.
Ms. Peyton's social compass, however, is as finely calibrated in this
group of works as it is in her paintings. Her photographs capture young,
scruffy denizens of the art world on the move (between fairs and
biennials, or studios in New York, London and Berlin). Several
photographs were taken on trains and buses; others at hotels (the
Chateau Marmont, for example) and weekend enclaves (Cutchogue, N.Y.).
Exhaustion is palpable, but so is an atmosphere of bohemian bonhomie.
Richard Klein, director of exhibitions at the Aldrich, writes in the
show's brochure that Ms. Peyton's photographs are "acts of devotion
based in a Platonic eros." That description seems better suited to her
paintings. Ms. Peyton photographs with the acquisitive determination of
someone amassing Facebook friends. The lines of her social network can
be traced to her galleries: Gavin Brown's Enterprise in New York and
Sadie Coles HQ in London. Here are Gavin Brown and Rirkrit Tiravanija;
there's Rirkrit again, with Olafur Eliasson; and that's Urs Fischer; and
This mix of artists and dealers (most of them are not exactly household
names) is enhanced by the occasional celebrity: Marc Jacobs, Chloë
Sevigny. (Ms. Peyton's shots sometimes bring to mind the studied
insouciance of Mr. Jacobs's advertising campaign photographed by Juergen
Again and again her camera seeks out pale young men with mussed hair.
Her subjects include the elfin-featured Nick Relph (of the British art
duo Payne and Relph); Craig Wadlin, a raffish artist who is
platinum-blond in some photographs and raven-haired in others; and
Spencer Sweeney, an artist, musician and nightlife impresario, looking
perpetually hung over. In a picture taken at Liverpool Street Station in
London, Mr. Sweeney shrouds himself with his black leather jacket.
Less frequently, Ms. Peyton photographs men of greater maturity and
gravitas. The art dealer Colin de Land, who died in 2003, is one
compelling example; another is the artist Matthew Barney. In his art Mr.
Barney controls and transforms his own image to exacting standards.
Here he is simply another guest at Ms. Peyton's metaphorical dinner
As revealing as this photograph is, it can't measure up to her paintings
of Mr. Barney exhibited this spring at Gavin Brown's Enterprise. The
same might be said of other photographs at the Aldrich — pictures of Ms.
Peyton's lover Tony Just and her friend Pati Hertling — that have most
likely served as source material.
"Portrait of an Artist" extends the promise of a less fussy, more
authentic Peyton, but it certainly doesn't strip her paintings of their
mysterious aura. Admirers will be left wondering how Ms. Peyton's
brushwork converts her awkward photographs into graceful, intuitive
By Karen Rosenberg
For The New York Times