Flower Ben, by Elizabeth Peyton

I have had a long relationship of ambivalence with Elizabeth Peyton’s work. And I’m not alone. As famous as she is–she is a true art world “darling”–there are many like me who cannot find their deep way into her work, to that place where you really feel connected. Sometimes a work will seduce me into engagement (like Flower Ben above), but mostly I am in between.

Some of my artist friends are big fans. But I keep asking myself, what it is about her work that usually keeps me outside of it?

It has a particular flavor of charm, to be sure. A deftness of the hand. And it presents itself as easy, accessible, light. It isn’t dark or brooding, which is its own refreshing change of pace. But I’m on the lookout for art that takes my breath away right there on the spot; the kind that I can feel deep inside, making me dizzy with feelings I can’t describe in words. Being with art you love is like having great sex: It should involve every part of your body, and the feelings should be outside the range of human language.

In the end it is highly subjective, this “like/don’t like” business. But the best part of this in between state is that you get to change your mind. Sometimes that happens all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a potentiality I love having around me.

Regardless of my yes and no regarding Peyton’s work, I did enjoy reading Sebeastian Smee’s review of her current show at the New Museum in New York. I like Smee’s writing. He isn’t afraid to be emotionally exuberant and titillated by what he sees and what he likes. Not one to stand back, he is neither cool nor detached. I find his reviews engaging and fun.

I posted the full Smee review on Slow Painting, but a few excerpts are included here, ones that can be meaningful as stand alone passages:

Elizabeth Peyton attracted attention in the mid-1990s not because her work was any good – that would take years – but because it catered to certain hankerings (for beauty, for human connection, for the rush of infatuation) that up until then the art world had grimly suppressed. People were disproportionately grateful.


It’s almost always wonderful when artists dare to be shameless – to go ahead and paint what they want. The trouble was, little of Peyton’s early work rose above the standard of lackluster fashion illustration, or of those saccharine, on-the spot portraits made by street artists in tourist traps.

Still, we can be thankful that she was encouraged by the kind reception extended to her early work, because she has gone on to produce one of the most daring and exquisite oeuvres in contemporary art. I fell completely for Peyton as I ambled through “Live Forever,” the retrospective at the New Museum here, feeling more and more like a mopey, heart-struck teenager every minute.

Many of you will not want to give in to such feelings, deeming them indecently frivolous.


In the end, I love the unlikeliness of Peyton’s success. Who would have thought that one of the most acclaimed and closely watched artists of our time would be a young woman who paints small, unabashedly girly portraits in oils on board – pictures that have no tough-guy conceptual underpinning to speak of?