Elizabeth Peyton
(born 1965) is an American painter who rose to popularity in the mid-1990s. She is a contemporary artist best known for stylized and idealized portraits of her close friends and boyfriends, pop celebrities, and European monarchy. The focus of Peyton’s work has been the small-scale portrait. Her paintings are characterized by elongated, slender figures with androgynous features. Sexually ambiguous, feminine qualities are regularly emphasised. Peyton has exhibited regularly at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York since 1995, at Neugerriemschneider in Berlin since 1996, at Regen Projects in Los Angeles since 1997, and at Sadie Coles HQ in London since 1998. Peyton lives and works in Long Island, New York and Berlin.

Walter Robinson
is an art critic who writes a column on contemporary art in New York City for Artspace. Robinson was a contributor to Art in America (1980-1996), the art editor of the East Village Eye, a founding editor of Art-Rite magazine and the founding editor of Artnet magazine (1996-2012). He also co-produced the public-access television show, GalleryBeat. Robinson is also a postmodern art painter whose work has been exhibited at Semaphore, Metro Pictures Gallery, Brooke Alexander Gallery, Haunch of Venison, and other galleries.

The following conversation took place in early December 2007 in the second-floor office of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise on Greenwich Street in Lower Manhattan.

Walter Robinson: So, from the beginning, you wanted to be an artist?

Elizabeth Peyton: Yes — even as a young, little person.

WR: Did you grow up here in New York?

EP: No, I grew up in Connecticut, in a small town.

WR: And then you told your parents you wanted to go to art school.

EP: Yes, but we were a pretty creative family, so it wasn’t a surprise. I was even encouraged.

WR: So you came from an artistic family?

EP: Yeah. My mom paints, and my dad wrote a lot when I was growing up. But he never published his writing. My parents had a candle shop.

WR: You went to the School of Visual Arts, right? Did you hook up with some people there who are still your friends?

EP: Yes, one friend, T.J. Wilcox — we met in school and we’re still really good friends. Douglas Blau was my teacher and I still see him a little.

WR: It’s interesting that T.J. Wilcox and Doug Blau aren’t painters.

EP: Well, you can love people’s work. It doesn’t have to be anything like your own. I love Rirkrit Tiravanija so much and his work isn’t anything like mine, but I think we have a spirit in common.

WR: Your portraits of young men are especially striking for their androgynous quality. You have turned to a new kind of hero — one that’s more like Donatello’s statue of David than most portraits of men. It’s quite an interesting subject for an artist, unlike anything anybody else is doing.

EP: I was never thinking about masculinity or femininity. It was more about a particular kind of person and what they do or did with their lives.

“Human beings are very avant-garde, and are as worthy a contemporary subject as anything else.”

WR: You’re interested in painting artists?

EP: Yeah, people who make things. You know, musicians, artists.

WR: You were born in 1965, during the sexual revolution, when men grew their hair long and dressed more like peacocks. There was an opening up and casting off of gender roles. Does that have something to do with it?

EP: Actually, I was reading a lot of Oscar Wilde when I was young, and I think I got it from there. Something that was bigger than being male or female, like being a human was more universal. Not being held back by certain ideas of what you should be, and for myself that was really important, too.

WR: So, no football players?

EP: I have painted some soccer players. It’s really emotional what they go through, soccer players. I like sports. Sports is another place where people are being sort of bigger than what they are. And you have to be very creative to do that.

WR: So your pictures are emblems of creativity?

EP: I don’t know. I do want to single out certain moments, to emphasize something. But it’s kind of what I want to see, also. I would like a picture of this so then I make a picture. When I started there weren’t pictures of Napoléon that I wanted to see. You really can’t find them. There are a lot of stories you can read, but actually seeing pictures of it — they just don’t exist. So I thought, “I’ll just make them myself.”

WR: Did you conjure them up out of your imagination?

EP: Yes, and from photos and from other paintings.

WR: You gave them a quality that you were looking for.

EP: Well, I made them exist. There’s the story of King Ludwig of Bavaria, who could never pass by the bust of Marie Antoinette that he had on his terrace without caressing her face. I wanted to see a picture of that.

WR: We hear a lot of talk about how figurative painting is out of fashion or that it’s not avant-garde. But it has such a strong presence in the contemporary art world. There are so many figurative painters working.

EP: Well, it’s got to be a good painting — it doesn’t matter what it is. Figurative painting doesn’t really matter so much as a thing of interest in itself. But on the other hand, human beings are very avant-garde and are as worthy a contemporary subject as anything else. It’s not necessarily an old-fashioned idea. Are people old-fashioned? No.

The only other thing that makes it different is it’s accessible. People know who people are and people love people and people need people. So things that wind up in those paintings are a little more immediate. But it has to be good painting to even read that way, right?