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Elizabeth Peyton
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essay Elizabeth Peyton, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Room 828 in New York City’s Hotel Chelsea was the site of Elizabeth Peyton’s 1993 breakthrough solo show of small-scale, monochromatic drawings depicting youthful visages of great historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Perhaps the “if these walls could talk” ambiance of this infamous hotel, which had housed the likes of Dylan Thomas in the early 1950s and Andy Warhol during the filming of his 1966 Chelsea Girls, contributed to the art-world buzz and critical response to her work. The faint suggestion of the impropriety of the gaze and the mastery of the artist over the model à la Matisse during his sojourns in Nice—all this was palpable despite the fact that Peyton was at the time a twenty-eight-year-old woman who had created her images from secondary source material.

By the time of her second solo show at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York, in April 1995, Peyton had expanded her repertoire to include images of modern-day rock stars such as Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the 1990s grunge band Nirvana, also became a frequent subject and the first who was both a peer and an American.1 It was not until late 1995 that she met artist Piotr Uklanski and invited him to pose for her, ushering in a body of work painted from life depicting her inner circle of friends, including Craig Wadlin and Tony Just.2 What would become recognizable attributes of her portraits—Mannerist elongation, pale skin, and impossibly red lips—transported these images of consumptively thin and fashionable young men to the edge of androgyny. When asked if there was any difference for her between painting famous people and those whom she knows personally, the artist explained, “I think about how influential some people are in other’s lives. So it doesn’t matter who they are or how famous they are but rather how beautiful is the way they live their lives and how inspiring they are for others. And I find this in people I see frequently as much as in people I never met.”3 By distilling the essence of her subjects’ lifestyles and life choices, the artist goes beyond representation to idealization. According to Peyton, “It’s almost a nineteenth-century idea that what’s on the inside appears on the outside. Balzac was into the curve of your nose or mouth expressing some kind of inner quality that could be read on your face.”4

In Princess Kurt (1995), Peyton depicts Cobain during a concert at the Praça da Apoteose Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on January 23, 1993, wearing a black lace dress and a crown, and looking to the artist “like an angel apparition.”5 The source was a still image taken from a 1994 video entitled Nirvana: Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, which includes live footage of the band performing the song “Dive.” Peyton views Cobain through an unabashedly feminine lens, heightening his epicene quality and gender-bending sartorial statement through her use of transparent lipstick-red paint colors, which she characteristically allowed to run, drip, and stain the canvas. Here, Peyton’s choice of medium goes hand-in-hand with her romanticized notions of history and permanence: ”That’s what oil paint’s about. You know it’ll last forever.”6

  1. See Peyton, interview with Rob Pruitt and Steve Lafreniere, Index Magazine 4, no. 6 (June/July 2000): 57.

  2. Peyton, correspondence with the author, March 17, 2004.

  3. Francesco Bonami interview with Peyton, “Elizabeth Peyton: We’ve Been Looking at Images for So Long That We’ve Forgotten Who We Are,” Flash Art 29, no. 187 (March/April 1996): 84–86.

  4. Peyton, interview, Index Magazine 4, no. 6: 58.

  5. Peyton, correspondence with Walker curatorial intern Rochelle Steiner, 1995 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  6. Peyton, interview, Index Magazine 4, no. 6: 56.

Carpenter, Elizabeth. “Elizabeth Peyton.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center