Last week I posted Roberta Smith’s review of Elizabeth Peyton’s retrospective at the New Museum, Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton. I had to follow it up with Paddy Johnson’s review in The L Magazine. Johnson sums up my general feelings on the Peyton phenom.
Nobody’s sure why Elizabeth Peyton is so famous. Traditional figurative painting and drawing finds uneasy acceptance in the contemporary art world, and her frequent depiction of superstars only confuses the matter. These famous figures either demonstrate the work’s contemporary vitality or its contrived emptiness — the critical response varies depending on the time of day. Indeed, Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton, a survey curated by Laura Hoptman at the New Museum (on view for five days as of this writing), has already had evaluations ranging from Art on Paper’s Larry Qualls’ unhesitating assertion that her celebrity portraits, historical figures and landscapes are “grad student work” to Roberta Smith at the New York Times declaring the show “visually alive,” informed by “the painterly and the Conceptual.”
Of course, disagreement within the art world is neither uncommon nor unhealthy, but one thing comprehensive exhibitions like this often do is prompt the kind of art world discussion that leads to greater consensus in the community. Unfortunately, while the show contains enough indisputably good painting to make this happen, I can’t see any agreement coming soon, for two reasons: the best works don’t look right on the museum walls, and there’s far too much mediocre work in the show.
Speaking to the first point: though arranged roughly chronologically, it’s hard to get a sense of the progress and success of the work given its hanging. Dwarfed by the museum’s towering walls, Peyton’s already small works blend together, one almost indistinguishable from another. It doesn’t help that the changes in Peyton’s work over the last 15 years have by in large been subtle: the difference for example, between her early work drawn from photographs and some of her life-based pieces in later years is often only faintly apparent.
The larger issue within the work itself, however, is the number of pedestrian paintings the artist has produced. Peyton has of course had some high points. Arguably a work of genius, Live To Ride (2003), a self-portrait evoking, in palette, pattern and composition, Gerhard Richter’s famous painting of his daughter Betty (1988), demonstrates incredible skill and emotional depth. Also stunning, Liam Gallagher’s blackened eyes, in Blue Liam (1996), reveal the elegant grace of Peyton’s hand, as does Savoy (Tony) (1999). But for every good painting and drawing Peyton produces, two or three average works accompany them. Her landscapes are consistently poorly executed, and she has yet to resolve the backgrounds in her later portraits. In Orient (2003), a poorly executed rubbery-branched tree near the water still leaves me wondering why it was included.
And curator Laura Hoptman doesn’t offer much in the way of clues. Given that there’s not much subject matter to discuss in Peyton’s work, beyond paint and the tradition of portraiture, perhaps it was felt that wall text (which hardly appears) wouldn’t add to the understanding of the show. The rationale makes sense, but given the exhibition’s larger organizational problems, Live Forever also won’t answer the concerns of her critics. Those who wonder why she’s at the New Museum at all will remain confused, and those who don’t will have to hunt through poorly presented material to support their opinions.