You could say that in creating a new audience for portraiture in the early ’90s, Elizabeth Peyton helped slam the door on modernism (postmodernism, too). And you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s hard to view the more than 100 paintings, drawings, and prints in “Live Forever”—the first retrospective museum survey of her 15-year career—as revolutionary.
Peyton works small: The paintings, in oil on board, are mostly about the size of a sheet of typing paper. She does not engage in the grand manner of 19th-century society portraiture, but in a petite manner more befitting her own society—an approach that has remained consistent since her first solo exhibition, held in a room at the Chelsea Hotel in 1993. Then, as now, she portrayed languid young men, and a few women, at a scale that nearly fills the picture frame and in a style that’s as simple, live, and light as a fashion sketch. She uses large, fluid brushstrokes in exuberant passages of vivid color that could stand alone as gorgeous abstract motifs, if they weren’t serving as, say, a purple shirt or curling locks of hair. Her drawing, though seductively skillful, is also highly stylized, attuned more to form and gesture than to individual characteristics. Her boys have red-bow lips, skin like porcelain, sharp cheekbones, and narrow noses; they all seem to have fantastic tailors.
Peyton’s idealizing style invests her subjects with a sort of clubhouse glamour, a glamour reinforced by the mix within her imaginary coterie: historical personages, pop icons, art-world friends, and friends, like Marc Jacobs, who’ve become pop icons. Each picture in this show is like a window on a mythic party. British artist Jake Chapman arrives in short orange hair and a Mephistophelian beard followed by a pretty Sid Vicious escorting his mum. Over in the corner in a lime-green shirt, Peyton’s friend Piotr lounges on a red sofa, reading something on the floor. A young David Hockney gazes at you through big, round sunglasses. Adi, a fashion designer, breakfasts with coffee in a French press, her wave of red hair wickedly coiffed. Elsewhere, Elizabeth Arden perches on a couch next to Georgia O’Keeffe, while two androgynous boys with mod haircuts make out nearby. Kurt Cobain, in his Princess phase, stumbles forward in a cocktail dress and tiara. Propped on a pallid elbow, in a red “Live to Ride” T-shirt, Peyton herself plays the gamine. And up onstage, bathed in yellow and red light, Julian Casablancas, lead singer of the Strokes, cups a hand to the mike.
Peyton captures her subjects not at their most revealing but at their most alluring, and because of this, she tends to focus on subjects, famous or not, who are self-consciously theatrical: Keith Richards circa Gimme Shelter, for instance, seen in profile with spindly, bejeweled fingers held to his chin dramatically, his red lips open as if in ecstasy. Or a white boy in Berlin with a flamboyant Afro gazing vacantly out at us.
For all their appeal, these paintings offer little in the way of emotion or psychological insight. When, for example, she depicts her boyfriend Tony asleep, she makes it clear that he’s bedding down in the Savoy Hotel—Peyton is more a chronicler of lifestyle than of life. The danger is that we swallow the pictures too easily, like a diet short on roughage. Or like photos in a celebrity rag: Peyton, despite her considerable talent, often comes off as a paparazza with a paintbrush.
Yet in “Live Forever,” she’s the one throwing the party. Step past the velvet ropes, and you too can join the scene.