Pretty in Paint

Zoe’s Kurt, 1995, Oil on board, 14 x 11 in., Collection Zoe Stillpass (

Zoe’s Kurt, 1995, Oil on board, 14 x 11 in., Collection Zoe Stillpass (

In his recent article in the magazine, “Fame Fucking and Other Frivolities,” Donald Kuspit, one of my most favorite critics, gives a brilliantly scathing review of , “Live Forever,” Elizabeth Peyton’s first major show at a U.S. museum. The New Museum hosted the exhibition of Peyton’s signature delicate portraiture of celebs and friends, spanning the artist’s 15-year career (Oct.10.08 to Jan.11.09).

I desperately wanted to hate the exhibition–for its simplified portrayal of youthful angst, its lack of irony, and bland glamorization of celebrities and hipsters–but I couldn’t hate it. Not completely. While I agree with Kuspit that her paintings carry the art historical weight of an US Weekly spread, and more closely resemble a high school student’s day dream doodles of celebrity fantasies and popularity than the portraiture of Sargent or Hockney (as the exhibition text suggests), they are undeniably beautiful.

All cherry red lips an exquisite faces, her subjects, androgynous and aloof, emerge from the luscious swathes of color she uses to define body, garment, and sometimes setting. Angular “brush” strokes, perhaps the work of a palette knife, vivid color, and sheer application combine to give the portraits the effect of stained glass. (This technique also allows her to create absolutely beautiful monotypes, none of which were included in the exhibition).

Unfortunately, as is the case with glass, the works are ultimately transparent. “Warhol understood that fame is a social fig leaf on personal vacuousness. Peyton thinks it is the fullness of being, showing how shallow her understanding of celebrity is compared to Warhol’s,” writes Kuspit. Her images are glorified but empty; the performers do not seem powerful, or even talented. There is little context–subjects are often cropped to a face and torso, doing little more than staring listlessly–and little desire for one, as there seems to be nothing offered by the works beyond their aesthetic contributions. Kuspit also points out that Warhol’s celebrity images were undoubtedly linked with death and poked fun at the ephemerality of fame, while Peyton’s works (and the show title) suggest that youth, beauty, and fame are lasting and definitive.

The triumph of this exhibition is simply that it is beautiful, and I had to remind myself that I do firmly believe that in art, if nowhere else, we are invited and encouraged to enjoy what is simply beautiful. I also had to remind myself that in a PoMo-Neo-Contempo-formaldehyde soaked-war time-depression era art world, we are not given quite so many opportunities to do that.

Elizabeth Peyton, “Live Forever” will travel to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London; and the Bonnefantenmuseum, in Maastricht , The Netherlands.

To read Donald Kuspit’s article in its entirety, click this:

To read more about the exhibition, click this:


One Response to Pretty in Paint

  1. spano says:

    Interesting take. Nice usage of the phrase “PoMo-Neo-Contempo-formaldehyde soaked-war time-depression era art world.”

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