Elizabeth Peyton: ‘help me feel my feelings’ (an interview)

Paul Laster

Painter Elizabeth Peyton discusses with CFA her painting and how she needs to portrait other people to understand herself.

Exhibiting widely since the mid-1990s, Elizabeth Peyton is celebrated for her small-scale portraits of artists and musicians, who are often her friends, as well as historical figures from a grander past. The subject of a solo show at Gladstone Gallery on New York’s Upper East Side and a just closed one-person exhibition at Gallery Met, the famous opera house’s showcase for fine art, Peyton recently spoke with Conceptual Fine Arts from a taxi in Berlin to discuss her process for capturing the creative spirit on canvas and the paintings and drawings on view.

What inspired the title of your show—Speed Power Time Heart?

Elizabeth Peyton: It came from some text in my working photos. I was on a treadmill that had WiFi on it the day after David Bowie died and I was watching old interviews and photographing him on the screen. I later noticed that I had also photographed part of the exercise machine and at the bottom of the frame it read Speed Power Blood and Heart—the controls and vital signs. It became the title of the show way at the end of the working process, but it just seemed right.

The eight paintings in the show seem familiar to your body of work with personal, famous and historical faces featured, yet somewhat unrelated as subjects. What’s the glue that holds the work together?

Elizabeth Peyton: I don’t know if I can say it straight out or if I even want to because I want the paintings to have some of that transformational magic that doesn’t have to do with being explained. But I would say that all of the paintings are about individuals—very extreme individuals who have a vision for making something.

What kinds of people attract your artistic attention?

Elizabeth Peyton: It all begins with me. That’s my interest. But I’m very inspired by people who are artists and musicians, people who touch me, people who help me feel my feelings, that describe my feelings in a way, if you know what I mean.

What’s the appeal of Louis XIV, who’s featured in two of the paintings in the show?

Elizabeth Peyton: There are so many things about him. He’s somebody that I’ve been reading about since I was young and I’ve made a lot of pictures of him over time. I wasn’t so concerned in making these pictures as historical documents. It was more like I wanted to let go inside of them and see where it took me—as far as the personalities and the feelings in them. I think that the one painting that’s very yellow, where he’s not on horseback rather he’s in the tapestry factory and he just has all of this stuff on, yet he’s so serious and sad in the picture. Maybe there’s something about his loneliness that interested me. There’s this film by Roberto Rossellini called “The Rise of Louis XVI,” a very homemade, period movie and in it there’s a scene where Louis decides that he’s going to wear the most outlandish outfits so that he can keep the nobles off his back because they’ll be so busy trying to copy him. I was interested in all of that stuff he was wearing. I didn’t know where those paintings would take me; I just needed to do it.

Are you painting him from other paintings and illustrations or from a biopic or from your imagination?

Elizabeth Peyton: Both of the paintings in the show have specific sources, but it mostly came from my imagination—especially the other characters. But there are pictures of his brother and family that you can see around and then there’s this new TV series called “Versailles” and the two brothers are very particular in it. I wasn’t working from it, but I’m aware of it.

The portrait of David Bowie that you previously mentioned is curious because it’s based on an obscure clip from a television interview. Is it a tribute?

Elizabeth Peyton: Yes, it’s from the video that I was watching, an old interview. I definitely wanted to make a picture in the year that he died. I wanted to think about him. But I see other people in that painting, too. It often happens that if there is someone else that I’m also thinking about it will come out. It’s not a literal portrait. I don’t mind letting other stuff seep in there when it happens.

You’ve painted Bowie in the past. What’s your fascination with him?

Elizabeth Peyton: His music has helped me through all of my life. I admire him as an artist, enormously. He was actually very hard to paint. I kept trying and trying, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that I finally made something that I liked. When I got into opera I suddenly had an easier time painting him because his face is a bit like a mask—it doesn’t seem like there is a lot there. Somehow seeing opera pictures got me more able to paint him, but I can’t say why.

Musicians—especially rebellious rock stars—have played a feature role in your body of work. This time, however, two of your musician portraits are classical artists—the composer Nico Muhly and the pianist David Fray. Are your tastes in music changing or maturing with age?

Elizabeth Peyton: No, I’ve always been into every kind of music. I didn’t really get into opera until about five years ago, but I was already interested in classical music, although I may listen to a bit more of it now.

Muhly and Fray are both major talents and your work brought them to my attention. Why did you choose them as subjects for your art?

Elizabeth Peyton: Because they’re so great! I just think that they’re really inspiring people and I wanted to see what would happen if I made pictures of them. Nico is somebody who often works with the Metropolitan Opera so I felt like somebody had to paint a picture of him, and it might as well be me.

Did you paint them from photos and videos or from life?

Elizabeth Peyton: The David Fray portrait came from another photo taken from a video when I was on the treadmill. A very particular kind of colour happens when you take pictures from video. The portrait of Nico Muhly was started from life. When I know the people or have access I like to paint them from life.

How do these different ways of working impact the results?

Elizabeth Peyton: The main thing about working from life is that I don’t want it to get too literal, so at some point I just work alone with the painting. I don’t have people sit that much for them—I also work from my memory and photos. But there’s a real thrill in working from life. It’s like jumping off a cliff in front of somebody. It makes me really hustle because I don’t want the person to get too tired. There’s a limited amount of time that a person can sit still and be focused. Pictures like the Louis XIV ones are very unconscious, but making them is like creating a story where all kind of stuff gets into it.

Do you work fast or do your portraits get realized over time?

Elizabeth Peyton: Some of them take a really long time, but it could be in a lot of spurts of fast working. Other times they can actually be very slow. Some of them come up in a month, or a month and a half, while others can be sitting there for a year or two. It just depends on what I’m looking to portray and how it feels in the end.

How many brushstrokes does it take to capture a likeness or spirit of someone?

Elizabeth Peyton: What a great question! I’ve never heard that one before, but I have no idea. I’ve never really thought about it. I think that if you’re really good and you’re having a flow you could probably get a likeness in ten brushstrokes. If you get the gesture right you’ll get it. When I make a picture there’s a lot of paint getting put on and paint getting pushed off. And there’s paint getting smudged around. All kind of stuff goes into the making.

I’m curious about the areas of the white ground that you leave unpainted, which makes me think of Cezanne, and that adds an abstract element to an otherwise realistic pursuit. How did you start working in this manner and what does it add to your touch?

Elizabeth Peyton: It just started feeling more right, somehow, to leave parts out. I was getting frustrated with wanting the painting to look like a still life or a person or whatever it was, but also still have it be a painting, not be at the service of describing every mark of a shadow on a shirt or something like that. So I was starting to feel that if I got the line right I didn’t need to put all of that stuff in. One thing that allows me to leave parts out is that I always put a heavy surface underneath the painting. It’s like glass. I’m really into the beauty of the ground, before the painting is even made. There are sometimes mistakes in how it gets applied, but I really like that—it can suggest movement and line.

You also have a warm, muted yet effervescent tone to your palette. Are there certain colours that attract you?

Elizabeth Peyton: I notice that there are certain colours that keep coming out. I’ve been living in Scandinavia and I’ve been noticing this yellow coming out. It’s a pale, lemon yellow. I think it’s from looking at a lot of Munch paintings. But I try to not to think that I really like this colour and I’m going to use it in a lot of paintings, rather it just sort of naturally takes place.

Do you mix your colours or do you work directly from the tube?

Elizabeth Peyton: They’re mixed. It used to be that I had this law for myself that I wouldn’t use white paint or black paint, which is why my colours are really vibrant. There was nothing bringing those colours down. I still don’t use black paint, but I do use a little bit of white now. I’m more comfortable with it and I like the added dimension it provides. It’s just another tool.

And your brushstrokes are luscious and highly expressive in emotional impact. How did you develop this way of working?

Elizabeth Peyton: It’s really very intuitive. I can’t really describe it much more than that. It’s what feels right, and I definitely know it when it’s not right. If it’s a dishonest line it has to go, but I try not to be too conscious about it. I just let it happen. I mean that in a very trusting way. There’s something else that’s going on inside of me that I can’t really think about and it just gets out there.

Do you paint wet on wet?

Elizabeth Peyton: Yes, I’ve started painting wet on wet, or wet into wet. It used to be that I wasn’t using that much paint so by the next day it was dry. Now it’s a little different, in that there’s a lot more paint on some of the paintings.

What factor does scale play? What is it about the intimate that appeals to you?

Elizabeth Peyton: Without being humble, I always thought that one didn’t need a lot of space to take up a lot of space. It was also a practical thing. I couldn’t make big work when I was younger. It was easy to bring a whole show to Europe in my luggage. Part of it was that I knew I could move in the world easily. It wasn’t hard. But another thing is that just through changing the dimensions of something can make it very powerful—taking a big thing and making it small or a small thing and make it big. I like to be able to have my hands on the painting and to be reacting all of the time. I don’t like to make paintings that are so big that I find myself filling in space. It’s a just because kind of thing. When things are a little smaller my brushwork has a liveliness that I like. When I’m making prints I work much bigger, and there are a lot bigger marks going on. I don’t rule out working large, but it doesn’t happen very often.

In the past critics have talked about a sense of you being in love with your subjects and that your true subject is love. Is that an accurate summation of your work and, if yes, does it still hold true?

Elizabeth Peyton: Yes. I think that people construe me in that way, especially because I’m a woman, but I would say it’s true. I do love what I paint, but I see definitely them as paintings. They’re not people. They’re paintings, but there is some transformation there. I do love the people that I paint. I admire them and much of the subject is about love, and about feeling.

Your recent exhibition at Gallery Met was based on the opera “Tristan and Isolde,” but unlike the show you did at the Met earlier this year, focusing on the opera “Manon Lescaut,” this exhibition seemed like a collection of existing images—one that was made up of people, dogs and still-lives. How did these disparate parts come together in the exhibition and what do they tell us about the opera, about the tale of these two lovers?

Elizabeth Peyton: I felt like I didn’t want it to be an illustration of “Tristan and Isolde,” like my term paper on the opera. I wanted to get to the passion of it. I also wanted to get to the ancientness of the story. That’s why there was the picture of the knight dreaming. And in the earliest story of “Tristan and Isolde” there’s a dog, named Petitcreiu. It’s a magical dog that can take your unhappiness away. The dog in the pictures is actually my dog, which I think has those same kinds of properties, so it wasn’t like way out of nowhere that the dog painting got put in the show.

You also presented a film, a video that was commissioned for Gallery Met Shorts and was shown during the intermission of the first performance and can still be viewed online. What was your approach in making this film, which is collaboration with Kristian Emdal?

Elizabeth Peyton: We wanted to foreshadow the opera with the story of how Tristan got his noble ways. We had him fighting. He was so small that he wasn’t a natural fighter, but he had a strong will. And we had him reading. Tristan was one of the most learned people there was, and he was also quite a musician. He pretty much picked up everything he tried. We wanted to make something that looked like it was from another time. I made it with Kristian and our friend Elias, who plays Tristan in the film. We used whatever we could get our hands on, which makes it look very homemade.

Emdal is also the subject of two of your paintings at Gladstone Gallery. What more can you tell us about Kristian than you have in your introspective portraits of him?

Elizabeth Peyton: He’s an artist and musician, but I think all that I want to say is pretty much visible on the painting. I tried to put all of my feelings about him in it.

Even though you have been represented by Barbara Gladstone for several years now this is your first solo show with the gallery in New York The intimacy of the townhouse space on the UES—a historical building designed by Edward Durrell Stone—reflects the nature of the Brussels gallery space, where you have had two solo shows. Did this new space spur the show?

Elizabeth Peyton: Barbara’s galleries are a very good context for me. The space gave me the confidence to keep the show small—compared to a lot of New York shows. I felt quite strongly that I could be confident with a small number of pictures. I wanted the show to be a full experience and I think the space allows that to happen.

January 30, 2020