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A portrait of Elizabeth Peyton

interior-peyton1An edited version of this article appeared in the Guardian on July 1, 2009.

Elizabeth Peyton does not consider herself a portraitist, at least not in the traditional sense. In her early twenties, she took commissions, but found being a hired hand a chastening experience. “It was awful, painful, I wasn’t very good at it,” she says. “I don’t rise to the occasion unless I’m really moved.” None of the paintings were rejected, but they did only cost $200 each. These days, her devotional studies of rock stars and romantic idols are vastly more expensive. One of her pictures of John Lennon recently fetched $800,000 at auction.

She graduated from New York’s School Of Visual Arts in 1987. It was a time of high concept, bright flash – Jeff Koons making golden porcelain statues of Michael Jackson – in which students were encouraged to think like stars and live in the moment, rather than master traditional techniques. Peyton knew she wanted to paint people, which was unusual at the time. Karen Kilimnik, the artist with whom she is most often associated, was still primarily making “scatter art” from found objects, cut up photocopies and pop cultural detritus.

“Before I was showing it just seemed like the wrong thing to do,” she says. “If you were making paintings you’d do it in an ironic way, or you would talk about how it was wrong to make paintings, but I just thought, first of all that’s dumb, but more, no-one in the real world had a problem with painting. It was just a small group of people in the art world. And because there wasn’t much there for painting, that gave me a lot of freedom. It wasn’t like I had a choice, like ‘shall I be a conceptual artist and be really cool or shall I be a really dorky painter?’ I just felt I could communicate what I was feeling that way.”interior-peyton2

We meet on a muggy afternoon, on the roof deck at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the gallery which represents her. Peyton is dressed down, in shorts and a vest. She’s wearing Vuarnet sunglasses and chic A.P.C. sandals in peach suede, but Vogue magazine’s favourite painter, a confidant of Marc Jacobs, is less fabulous than I’d been expecting. Her fashionable friends are sometimes held up as proof that the work is shallow. In person she is unpretentious and open.

She arrives with her dog, Harry, a Rhodesian Ridgeback Pit Bull cross, and offers her right hand, deformed since birth, to shake. Feeling momentarily awkward, I grab her by the wrist, rather than the forefinger and thumb, which is all she has. She uses these like a pincer, to hold the board, while she paints with her left.

As a child, her eyes never learned to work in concert, so she’s no good at judging distances. “It’s not so uncommon not to have depth perception. You see everything flat,” she says. “I wonder, though, if it makes people more disposed to make pictures.” Does it create difficulties? “Parking. My parallel parking is… I’m much better with a boat, when there’s more room around.”

Peyton’s breakthrough show was in 1993, at the Chelsea Hotel, best known as the place where Sid killed Nancy, or where Leonard Cohen slept with Janis Joplin and wrote a song about it. The invitation told critics and collectors to ask for the key to room 828. It was a tiny exhibition, with no staff, a deliberate contrast to overblown ‘event’ openings. Fewer than fifty people viewed the charcoal and ink drawings of Napoleon, Marie Antoinette and Queen Elizabeth II, but influential New York critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz took notice. British dealer Sadie Coles bought a drawing. By the time Peyton was ready for her first solo show of paintings, her name was out.

Her oil on board portraits – there is no better word – are elegant miniature and trashy fanzine, like Edouard Manet in the NME. They are rarely bigger than a sheet of A4 and often considerably smaller. In daring, broad brushstrokes that explore the boundary between realism and abstraction, they depict her imagined relationships with Liam Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker, Jackie and John Kennedy, Oscar Wilde and his lover, Bosie.

Peyton’s epiphany was that to paint well, she needed to be enraptured by her subjects. She describes this gaze best with her hands, framing her face and looking upwards, eyes and mouth wide open, like a besotted fan in the front row. After reading Stendhal, Flaubert and Balzac, she resolved to love like a heroine of Nineteenth Century romantic literature, with a fevered, all-consuming passion for men she had never met.interior-peyton3

She worked from photographs. In the case of Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana singer who committed suicide in 1994, she used several images from a commemorative issue of Rolling Stone. In one painting he wears red lipstick, his blonde hair frames his head like a halo and the pale tint of his skin literally drips down the front of his t-shirt.

I ask if she has had the chance to meet her idols – the ones who are still around – and paint them from life. At this, she betrays a hint of impatience. “I don’t really separate those pictures out and call them rock star paintings. I think of it more like people who make things.” Gesturing with her right hand, she knocks her glass of mineral water all over the table and my tape recorder. “I must not have liked that question,” she laughs.

The answer is a stock response she’s given many times before. So while we’re mopping up the spill, I press her: Why doesn’t she paint welders or carpenters? What drives her obsession with elegantly wasted teen idols? “There’s something in music that fascinates me, how it communicates emotion so immediately, and that’s something I wanted in my paintings,” she says. “The way it can contain someone’s humanity, like the way they breathe. Whatever was in Liam Gallagher’s voice, I wanted to capture, more than how he looked.”

Something about the Oasis singer’s desperate yearning reminded her of the hero of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, Lucien Chardon, who “inherited from his mother invaluable physical traits” but upon arriving in Paris, soon realised that “this was only the ore from which the gold had to be extracted.” Mining this beauty is Peyton’s gift.

Not all of her subject relationships are fantasies. At the peak of her late 1990s fame, she was captivated by the aura of artist Tony Just, enough to move to Long Island with him, paint him several times and get matching tattoos of the Napoleonic eagle on their wrists. Although they later split up, she is clearly drawn to confident, androgynous boys. It’s striking how many of their portraits end up looking like her.

In recent years, Peyton has painted the denizens of her downtown scene, from life, with enough wrinkles to suggest she has moved on from her youthful ideal of beauty. Her retrospective, Live Forever, which opens at the Whitechapel Gallery in London next month, includes portraits of Jacobs, Brown, the conceptual artist Matthew Barney and her ex-husband Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist whose ‘relational aesthetics’ involve creating facsimiles of takeaway kitchens inside art galleries. It all feels rather incestuous.

In its first run, at the New Museum in Manhattan, the exhibition was packed. It also attracted some memorably hostile reviews, from critics who see her paintings as slight, celebrity infatuated ephemera. This doesn’t bother her for a second. “I was afraid, looking back, my work would seem immature,” she says. “But I noticed how they were really paintings. That was mind-blowing for me, a little bit shocking.”

I take this to be a defence of her craft and a suggestion of how her pictures should be enjoyed – not merely for the content but for their abstract qualities. “A painting of a person can be descriptive, but for me it’s all the things that make up a picture – the feelings, the brush strokes – more than describing somebody. People latch on to the personalities when they talk about my work and forget the other parts.”

The day after Barack Obama’s election, a painting was added to the retrospective, of his wife Michelle and daughter Sasha watching his speech at the Democratic Convention. It had been held back to avoid accusations of political bias. Peyton originally wanted Obama himself to sit for a portrait, but when it became clear he wouldn’t have time, she worked from a photograph of Michelle in Jet magazine, adding “a bit of Gaugin. That and my feelings about her, and how amazing it was that this was about to happen and I lived in that world.”

Her latest project, literally pulled from the seabed at dawn on a Greek island, for a stellar crowd of artists, dealers, curators and collectors, was a collaboration with Barney consisting of a bronze vitrine, a dead shark and some drawings that slowly dried in the sun. Peyton believes that “art is just good or bad, it doesn’t matter what it is.”

When I ask her if she feels comfortable in an art industry that feeds on celebrity, she answers: “I don’t know about the word celebrity, but as a person who’s part of the culture, why not? In France in the Nineteenth Century artists were part of government. Artists are very sensitive to their time, they’re very thoughtful people, so it makes sense that you might want to hear what they have to say.”

It has been suggested that painting for its own sake, untainted by the stigma of collectability, is making a comeback. Three artists on the Turner Prize shortlist paint, in mixed-media projects. Damian Hirst has taken up oils for a forthcoming show at the Wallace Collection, with a nod to John Ruskin’s idea that “there’s an unbroken line all the way back to the cavemen, and we are just the most recent additions.”

Peyton approves of that notion, although she herself never wanted to do anything else. “I like the limitation of it, of trying to make it happen in that space, where other people have been trying to make it happen for a long, long time,” she says. Lately, she has been experimenting with still lifes, hoping to “take all my feelings about a person, about being, and locate it in a different place.” For the Whitechapel show, a Greenwich Village street scene has been replaced by a brand new picture of the Empire State Building.

Painting has been pronounced dead as often than punk. Having lived through numerous cycles of boom and bust, Peyton is wary to give the recession too much credit for reviving traditional disciplines. “It’s kind of a cliche,” she says. “But it’s true that everyone’s going to get shaken out of the tree and at the end of it, you’ll see who’s still there. The people who had more lasting things going on and are really great artists, they’ll stay. These sort of reversals change the art world, so it’s an exciting time.”