The New Museum
Live Forever, Elizabeth Peyton
Through January 11, 2009
Nobody's sure why Elizabeth Peyton is so famous. Traditional figurative painting and drawing finds uneasy acceptance in the contemporary art world, and her frequent depiction of superstars only confuses the matter. These famous figures either demonstrate the work's contemporary vitality or its contrived emptiness — the critical response varies depending on the time of day. Indeed, Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton, a survey curated by Laura Hoptman at the New Museum (on view for five days as of this writing), has already had evaluations ranging from Art on Paper's Larry Qualls' unhesitating assertion that her celebrity portraits, historical figures and landscapes are “grad student work” to Roberta Smith at the New York Times declaring the show “visually alive,” and informed by “the painterly and the Conceptual.”
Of course, disagreement within the art world is neither uncommon nor unhealthy, but one thing comprehensive exhibitions like this often do is prompt the kind of art world discussion that leads to greater consensus in the community. Unfortunately, while the show contains enough indisputably good painting to make this happen, I can't see any agreement coming soon, for two reasons: the best works don't look right on the museum walls, and there's far too much mediocre work in the show.
Speaking to the first point: though arranged roughly chronologically, it's hard to get a sense of the progress and success of the work given its hanging. Dwarfed by the museum's towering walls, Peyton's already small works blend together, one almost indistinguishable from another. It doesn't help that the changes in Peyton's work over the last 15 years have by in large been subtle: the difference for example, between her early work drawn from photographs and some of her life-based pieces in later years is often only faintly apparent.
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