Sunday, November 16, 2008

Elizabeth Peyton at the New Museum

With Kevin, I visited the New Museum for the first time today. The building, made up of staggered white boxes, looked self-consciously contemporary in the row of old apartment buildings along Bowery. The space inside was bare. An uncovered concrete floor. Lots of glass and whitewashed walls. What was perhaps intended to be casual chic felt to me non-committal. The space was inarticulate.

"Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton," the exhibition of a fifteen-year career, took up two floors. Peyton drew portraits, ranging from historical figures (Ludwig II of Bavaria, Napoleon), to cultural icons (Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, Lady Diana Spencer), to artistic contemporaries and friends. Most of the portraits were small oils on board, a number were drawings, a few were done in color pencil. Despite the range of subjects, the portraits resembled each other uncannily: androgynous, youthful, cropped hair, luscious mouth, and defined jaw. The attraction here was noble youth and its vulnerability. These were pictures of heroes before their tragic fall. 

The works on exhibit were uneven in standard. Some, particularly the earlier paintings, had the quality of illustration; they could have been done by a skillful street artist. The later painting were more interesting in their attention to composition and background. One closely cropped picture of a head lying down on an arm, one eye closed, was gripping in its abstraction. Another, with his nose bumping up against the right side of the frame, dramatized the relationship between positive and negative pictorial space. 

After viewing the exhibition, Kevin and I went up to the sky room which afforded a spectacular view of a sun setting behind shores of cloud, and piles of buildings. The fire subsided to yellow, and then to blue and black. But the last was not ash-like; it was thick and rich. We enjoyed a drink up there, and then went off our separate ways. 

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