An Interview with Elizabeth Peyton

Elizabeth Peyton, born in 1965, is a celebrated American painter. She paints intimate portraits of her friends, heroes and idols that live in the same time period.

Her works feature celebrities such as Prince Ludwig II, Kurt Cobain, and Eminem when he was eight. This allows us to see who she looks up to, but I have often pondered what drives her admiration. It is obviously more than just being a fan, it is almost like reverence. My curiosity is piqued about what she values.

I had some trepidation about talking to Peyton, as I’ve long admired her work since the MoMA show on figurative painting in 1997, where she showed alongside Luc Tuymans and John Currin. It’s said that it’s not a good idea to meet your heroes, but I was eager to talk to her.

The work of Peyton ‘s artist books, paintings, and drawings has been incredibly powerful to me. Her use of paint is highly vivid, and it’s quite clear that a lot of physical strength and passionate feeling has gone into her pieces. In my opinion, her artwork has that same tantalizing quality as what makes one want to tear a picture out of a magazine.

Her creations have a sincerity to them like a love song and a rebelliousness similar to that of punk music. I have great respect for the intrepidity with which she dives into her fascinations and desires and then shapes them into art.

Peyton and I, both residing in the West Village of New York, chose to conduct the interview at a nearby cafe. She was beaming and clutching a new album produced by the Danish group Var upon her arrival. We discussed the gifted Danes before delving into the main topic of conversation.

— Leanne Shapton

The works of Leanne Shapton are renowned for their creative use of language and captivating story lines. Her writing style has been praised for its ability to evoke emotion and draw readers in. Her writing has been described as thought-provoking and imaginative, and her narratives are often hailed as innovative and highly entertaining.

Numerous interviews have been conducted by the person in question – THE BELIEVER -, correct?

Elizabeth Peyton commented that while she doesn’t do interviews often, only a few times a year, she feels it is important to use her own words to explain her work while she is alive. She believes there is a difference between how she sees her work and how it is reflected back to her in other writings. Even though she believes the work should be able to speak for itself, she feels cliches and self-perpetuating internet posts can be a problem.

BLVR: I wanted to bring up some topics to discuss today, particularly the concept of photogenics or the practice of photogenesis, if that is even a word. Specifically, I’m interested in the difference between how people present themselves in pictures and in real life.

I often ponder the idea of photography–I don’t sit and think about it, but it somehow keeps reappearing. I make art pieces of people from life and from photos.

There was this one opera singer I was painting for a year, his name is Jonas Kaufmann, and I was working from photos. I eventually got to see him perform and the moment I met him and saw the third dimension, I was absolutely astounded. I was naturally thrilled, but it was bizarre to see the third dimension after being so familiar with his two-dimensional face.

BLVR: Was his physical appearance not as appealing to you?

EP commented that it wasn’t the typical better-or-worse situation, it was peculiar; it was almost as if his countenance had dropped. It was incredibly strange.

BLVR asked if the person looked better in pictures than in person.

EP refuted the idea of being misunderstood. He clarified that the contrast between two and three dimensions is immense, which is what separates a photograph from reality.

BLVR: Did you get the opportunity to sketch him from life?

EP mentioned that during their last show they created a painting and a drawing from life, which they had out in the studio when their guest arrived.

They initially considered hiding the works, as they featured the guest’s likeness as well as other people’s. However, when EP began working on the pieces that were based on photos, the experience was different. EP described the sensation of having a “facial-recognition thing” where they could hear the person’s voice or a singer’s singing when the painting began to resemble them.

BLVR exclaimed in amazement.

EP: Are you familiar with what I’m saying?

At times, I am able to detect an odor of people I am thinking about–possibly I possess the olfactory version of that. I believe I know what you mean. It is not auditory for me, but rather… fragrant.

I believe the origin of this idea is comparable.

BLVR asked if the person had a habit of viewing images of other people.

EP affirmed in the affirmative.

BLVR: Did you take pieces out of magazines?

EP: Indeed. Numerous images of gymnasts, for instance, Nadia Comăneci, when I was younger I was into ice skaters, Elton John, and I’m not ashamed to admit I once liked Shaun Cassidy–which may be too early for you.

BLVR responded with a firm no.

EP: Is the answer no?

I came into the world in ’73, and I can recall Comăneci very clearly.

EP expressed, “Ever since I can recall, I have been mesmerized by the images of other people and have been creating my own artistic representations as well.”

BLVR questioned if the artist was inspired by photographs in their work.

EP explained that the creation of their most beautiful person ever was an exercise in imagination. From a very young age, they recall attempting to craft this image.

BLVR: Do you still rip out pages from magazines?

I often take screenshots on my iPad and then print them out, and if I’m reading a magazine I’ll tear out the pages I want to keep. EP: Absolutely!

BLVR: In regards to the attractive aspect, you’ve discussed the concept of “transforming into” in certain interviews– expressing fondness for the moment when someone turns into who they are. If I’m saying something that isn’t true, please let me know.

I find it truly intriguing.

Do you see a point when the image people present of themselves is considered attractive?

EP believes that people are not as aware of situations as to be able to say, “Oh, I’m going to amplify this now.” He sees it as a outcome of energy; he can sense it in people. When he was younger, he thought that such changes came at a certain age, but he now understands that it is a continuous process which happens as life progresses and one undergoes different experiences.

EP: Do you think your picture is attractive?

BLVR: Not really sure, but I don’t believe so. It’s contingent. I’m aware that with a professional photographer, my appearance is much improved [ laughs ] and the experience is usually quite pleasant. I appreciate it.

I have a favorite book of yours from 1998 that has a compilation of photos, drawings, and paintings; it is entitled Craig. What was the process like when putting this book together?

EP explained that he had wanted to make a book about Craig, and that the timing of Princess Diana’s death and how Craig made art seem significant to him.

He commented that he couldn’t describe it, but that the book was a narrative of Craig’s metaphorical becoming, while Diana’s children became little men at her funeral. He said he had tried to put the two together in an intuitive way and that knowing Craig had been a factor in his creation of the book. [ Peyton coughs on a cornichon.].

BLVR inquired if the person was all right.

In the near future, EP anticipates a sneeze.

I’m a big fan of the Reading and Writing book from the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It’s really cool how you included excerpts from other books to be alongside your own creations.

EP stated that he was the creator of all of his books, and he felt compelled to create them in such a way that it reflected his vision, as it is something that he cannot control after his demise. He then chuckled.

BLVR: When you’re gone, you’ll be spinning in your eternal resting place.

EP commented that they often feel like they are engaged in a constant conflict and if they can maintain the atmosphere they desire, they will be happy.

What do you believe is being misconceived by those who read the article?

EP commented that people often label her as someone who paints celebrities, which is not how she sees her work. She prefers to focus on those who make art, even if they have achieved notoriety in the process. It’s a very specific group of individuals that appeals to her.

I believe what will remain in the long run is not the notoriety associated with being famous.

Oil on board painting by Elizabeth Peyton from 1996, titled Jarvis, is 11 × 14 inches and is copyrighted in 2010. The artwork is held courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise.

I understand that this is a reflection of the culture in general, however it is important to remember why certain people have become famous – they are remarkable. Should I be painting the local plumber? There is nothing wrong with being a plumber, and maybe I would if I happened to meet him, but it is not as if I must paint everyone I come across.

BLVR: Indeed, it is a relief that it is not. Something that I appreciated about the book from the Irish Museum of Modern Art was the way it delved into your enthusiasm for literature.

EP expressed enthusiasm for the great opportunity. They had arranged the literature with the aim of reaching the climax of Madame Bovary where Emma commits suicide by poisoning herself.

I’m still haunted by it. I actually posed a question to my spouse last night: If I were to take my own life and he discovered me, would he struggle to keep me alive?

EP exclaimed upon hearing the statement, “Oh my gosh, what was his response to that?”

He declared, “Obviously I would [do that], though that is a notion frequently held by those who are feeling down.”

EP remarked on how intense the book was.

Do you also read contemporary fiction? That was the question I had in mind.

Recently, I’ve been getting more contemporary fiction from a friend of mine who loves it. While I enjoy the works of Junot Diaz and Javier Marias, I recently read a very popular book that was well written and smart, but it was also quite cynical and depressing.

I feel like art should take us somewhere else, it should have a transcendent quality to it, no matter if it’s painful or joyful. I don’t want to be bogged down with a cynical point of view.

Elizabeth Peyton’s Elias Bender RØnnenfelt is an oil painting on canvas measuring 10 x 8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, the painting was completed in 2013.

I have a simple assessment I use; I wonder if it has a magical effect?

EP commented that it was a nice phrase. He then asked if it put the speaker into a trance-like state with the language.

I have a system where I evaluate whether something is an illustration or a piece of art.

EP concurred.

BLVR: It may be a pair of trousers, a book, or a movie. Art typically elicits a unique feeling of “I have never sensed this before,” while illustration produces a sensation of “This feels–”

EP: –something that is well-known.

Yes, I comprehend it and it brings me pleasure.

I’m constantly considering the concept of painting when my work is representational; it has no definitive start or finish. Describing it is not a destination.

Can you tell when you have produced a successful painting, or does it require some distance for you to be able to recognize it?

EP: Affirmative, indeed. Creating a painting can take quite a while. It’s thrilling at the start, full of potential and enthusiasm, yet there is a long period between then and when I’m aware of what to do.

It’s a bit unnerving, yet if it’s going to be successful, I can sense it. I understand when it’s finished, when it’s gotten to that other realm. Yes, I can begin to hear the music or the voice.

BLVR: It’s amusing that you highlighted a frightful moment–

EP: So much frightful suspense.

BLVR: My nonprofit publishing business recently issued a biography of Martin Kippenberger, and there’s a quote that I’m particularly fond of, something along the lines of if you don’t take risks that could be potentially mortifying, you’re not achieving anything truly remarkable.

EP expresses that he knows a lot of artists who understand the concept of taking risks in their work. He remarks that his art makes him feel very exposed, as he is being honest in the way he portrays his feelings.

EP continues to explain that while he is proud of his work, he must be brave enough to be vulnerable in order to make art. He states that even if it hurts, it is necessary in order to make the best work.

BLVR: It was evident to you from an early time–

EP stated that they weren’t aware of the situation beforehand, and noticed that their questions were being met with assumptions of their prior knowledge about the entire process, when in reality all they could do was what they did, without any other option.

I truly respect individuals who are able to listen to their own internal guidance.

I think I somehow knew that I was up to the challenge. I was willing to put myself out there and give it my all with painting. Even though it can be a solitary activity, there is something very…

BLVR: Difficult?

EP: –considered it, it’s like taking a leap off a precipice.

BLVR: Pardon me, I just said something for you!

Oil on board artwork aptly named Flowers & Actaeon by Elizabeth Peyton, is courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise. This 11 x 14 inch piece was created in 2007-2008.

EP shared that despite sometimes needing pain, it is an odd thing how it can become something advantageous. They remarked on how if the result is a stunning artwork, they feel very blessed.

BLVR: Pain is sometimes the only way I judge something. It was intriguing to hear that you swim frequently. I used to compete in swimming when I was younger–

EP: Astonishing.

BLVR: The concept of “no pain no gain” is widely accepted in the sports industry, so it stands that it also applies to the artistic realm.

I believe that there is a close connection between sports and art, correct?

In my opinion, I agree.

EP expressed that while talent is abundant, reaching a certain level of success is its own experience entirely. Describing it as “magical”, the speaker found the concept fascinating.

Do you have a dedication and commitment to your art form similar to that of a professional athlete? Do you make an effort to draw on a daily basis?

EP professed that their faith is the center of their life, and they are dedicated to it. There’s no doubt in their mind that they are a true believer.

I had a desire to know more about Lucian Freud; could you fill me in?

I didn’t always have a positive view of EP when I was younger. I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would spend their energy displaying the ugliness of life. But as I got older and developed more strength to accept death, my artwork was undeniably influenced.

BLVR: At what point in time did–

EP: When my father died, it had an effect on my work. Looking at Lucian Freud’s paintings now, I can appreciate them and see the beauty in them; it’s a part of life. What about your experience?

BLVR: I have an hypothesis about him that I have never discussed with anyone, but after observing the show at the National Portrait Gallery, I perceived him to be a landscape artist who viewed humans in the same manner as a landscape.

EP: Indeed, these ideas are quite abstract–

BLVR observes that the individual in question resembles a hawk soaring above the terrain with a stern yet patient gaze. It is as though he is painting a vista with living beings.

EP: Indeed. Could he be sadistic?

BLVR: Comparable to a hawk! Much like a raptor. Not necessarily sadistic, yet there is a coolness, however there is significantly more affection in how tolerant–

EP declared that even if someone must attend to a certain task daily, such as being nude and upside down, or being with another person, the act of observing can be a loving and warm form of attention.

Martin Gayford wrote a book about the time he was painted by him. It was quite interesting to learn about the activities they would do, like having conversations and cooking food. Notably, the artist was particularly generous.

He was incredibly handsome.

BLVR: That particular feature. Something else that stands out in your art is the three-quarter views and profiles of the people. I find pleasure in observing people from the side.

EP: Much appreciated. There is an Oscar Wilde quote that I find quite interesting about people’s profiles. It’s amazing how much different someone can be from their online representation. It really captures them in a wholly distinct sense.

A painting by Elizabeth Payton, titled Cezanne + Balzac, is an oil on linen on board measuring 12 × 9 inches. This artwork was created in 2009.

BLVR suggested that a profile conveys the feeling of unrequited love, as the individual being portrayed is looking away and unable to return the gaze. This speaks to a sense of rejection and thus more yearning within the image.

EP expressed surprise at the thought. Instead of silhouettes from centuries ago, there was a distinct difference in the images with someone looking directly at them. It was rare to find anyone willing to do that, with only three or four people managing it. Isn’t it extraordinary?

Do you inquire them?

EP states that he never asks anyone to do anything and he wants them to be as they like. He might suggest to someone to look off to the side, as he has no depth perception when someone looks at him straight on. However, he feels more free when the person’s eyes are a little off. He enjoys it when people just do it.

Do you favor creating artwork based off of photographs or directly from the subject itself?

EP expressed that they had a fondness for both photography and painting. Going further, they commented on the pictures that Alfred Stieglitz took of Georgia O’Keeffe when they first met, musing on the idea.

BLVR expressed their admiration with an enthusiastic “Yeah, beautiful!”

EP commented on the amazing feat of two individuals being in the same space concurrently, remarking that the work they did would remain, and that it was thrilling.

I’m a fan of the concept of “sessions”. Sessions such as the Peel Sessions, photo sessions or a sitting. All of which I feel are necessary because it’s set aside time.

EP remarked that the present era is distinct and to craft something that encapsulates that moment in time is an exciting endeavor.

You can listen to the actual vocalization of individuals when you hear them speak.

When I take pictures, occasionally I will recall the music that was playing when I captured it.

Do you, when you take a trip, purchase new sketchbooks to take with you or use existing ones?

EP exclaimed humorously that they are taking a journey tomorrow which is a combination of activities. They added that if they need anything new they will get it, but they would rather it not be brand-new. They prefer the idea of just having left the studio and not making a big deal about the fact that they are somewhere else.

BLVR: How much research do you undertake for your artwork?

I don’t always draw from a prior piece of art. My painting and drawing are always distinct activities for me. There is no scientific research to support it, but I typically do more drawing in the summer and more painting in the winter.

BLVR inquired, “Is that so?”

In winter, heavier items are more common, and it is understandable.

What is the reason that there is a disproportionally high amount of artwork depicting women that has been created by male artists, compared to the amount of artwork depicting men that has been crafted by female artists?

Until recently, not many female painters were given the opportunity to create artwork.

BLVR posed the question: Did the artist Camille Claudel ever conduct studies of male subjects?

EP: Absolutely, she did not deserve all the criticism she got, and I honestly think the pressure she was under, especially with all the speculation regarding her bond with Rodin, made her life unbearable. Even if their relationship was intense, it was wrong of everyone to be so oppressive to her.

It is unfortunate that she did not have opportunities to talk about her work through interviews.

EP: Yes, indeed! However, it becomes increasingly apparent that many female artists have been left out of the narrative of history, despite their contributions.

Elizabeth Peyton’s oil painting on board, titled “John McEnroe,” measures 12 3/4 × 9 3/4 in. and was created in 1995. It is displayed courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise.

BLVR: In the Reading and Writing volume, there is a citation from Balzac’s Lost Illusions, where the protagonist Lucien is wondering which features women will appreciate about him. The lines cite slender feet and men with exquisitely tailored gloves as attractive male characteristics. What do you believe we focus on in terms of male beauty today?

EP: I’m not sure. I don’t distinguish between gender when I observe people. Perhaps it reflects in the work I do; a lot of the characters I create are androgynous. I’m interested in what makes a human unique – the manner in which they move, for instance, is captivating.

BLVR: Is it common for someone to be aware of the same qualities in a person as you?

EP: At times, I’m uncertain of which Goethe tome it is… could it be Goethe? I’m thinking of a work entitled Elective Affinities that features a scene in which a male protagonist comes across a woman at a gathering, or some comparable event, and there is an [ explosion sounds ] like feeling. All of a sudden, the whole universe is altered. They look at one another and, since they understand they’re not isolated any longer, everything is wonderful. [ Laughs ]

BLVR: Acknowledging it is also a portion of what you do.

EP: Indeed. Yes, thank you. “I understand.” Yes. I am deciding to honor “this.” I deem “this” to be of great significance. I deem this to be of importance in the world, you know? It has been a traditional practice to make artwork of heroes and to display them in a place of prominence so that one can be stirred by them or look to them as a source of inspiration. This is an ever-lasting element of images of people.

BLVR: Who else is discussing their inspirations in the art world?

I’m not sure who’s been painting pictures of famous people as of late, but I would imagine it’s people they look up to. For instance, Baron Antoine-Jean Gros created images of Napoleon and Delacroix too.

BLVR: I’m uncertain if anybody else is.

EP remarked how brave and heroic artists are for exposing themselves to the public, citing opera singers as an example. As a testament to their professionalism, EP spoke of how one of the singers had stumbled mid-performance, only to be picked up by her two peers and ushered off by a backup singer. Despite this, the show must go on, and the opera singers continued the performance with no disruption.

BLVR: Could you elaborate on how your creative process was altered following the passing of your father? Is it something you’d like to discuss?

EP noticed that the hues in the artwork began to become muted as the darkness started to take over. The colors in the paintings were becoming soiled and eventually every color was gradually turning to black.

BLVR: What do you think of Fantin-Latour’s work?

I am absolutely smitten with him, and I am very excited to read the recently published book.

BLVR commented that the group portraits rendered by the artist are peculiar and awkward.

EP mentioned a painter friend of his, Andro Wekua, who had once said to him: “I believe that being in the studio and painting some flowers is the most revolutionary action one can take.” EP fully understands this concept and has experienced it himself. He discussed how when he visits art schools, the students are worried about including every detail in their work, feeling that it is not enough to simply observe and paint something or even create abstract art. He believes it is not only enough, but also an incredible challenge.

My advice to younger artists is to take a step back and try to relax.

BLVR: It would have been nice to listen to that. Did you study history while attending art school?

Lots of postmodern courses were taken by me, and one that left a lasting effect was Bill Beckley’s Literature and Evil class. This is where I was first introduced to Georges Bataille’s writing and similar works.

BLVR expressed their desire to have attended school.

EP asked if they still take part in swimming.

BLVR: Yes, I went swimming laps. I completed high school early and then went back and trained for the ’92 Olympics.

EP: Did you take part in the Olympics?

BLVR: No, just the trials. However, it was a very strange period which has made me preoccupied with the ideas of discipline with regards to athletics and artistry. I had a book published last year that was based around the sport of swimming.

EP: I’m feeling a bit cold. I’m really keen to read that. Have you ever gone running?

BLVR: Cross-training wasn’t something I enjoyed. Too much commotion. Too much noise and visuals to take in.

EP: It’s something I’m aware of. But I find that when I’m in the pool I tend to become somewhat anxious. It’s not too extreme, just because I feel isolated underwater. Do you own any underwater headphones?

I have employed those, indeed!

Elizabeth Peyton’s 1998 work, “Craig” is featured in a photograph courtesy of Walther Konig.

EP expressed their excitement when they came to know about the existence of this particular activity. It felt like they had discovered something extraordinary. To their surprise, they started running to have something to do whenever they wanted and compared it to drawing which can be done anywhere.

It is fascinating to note the number of creators who engage in physical exercise.

EP: When I’m running, I can really think clearly. I often imagine how a visitor might act when they come into my home. I can control the situation by deciding where they sit or what they have access to. When I’m experiencing difficulty, I find that a walk helps me to gain clarity and a better outlook when I return.

Going for a stroll with someone can be quite enjoyable, as it allows for lengthy pauses in conversation without the awkwardness of direct eye contact.

It has been suggested that when one is taking a walk, something unique occurs in the brain. Moreover, if there is a disagreement with someone, a walk together might be a beneficial way to resolve it.

BLVR asked, “Is that true?”

EP suggests that when engaging in physical activity there is more than just the release of endorphins that happens in the brain, indicating there is something special that is produced.

BLVR suggested that being kindly understanding might be beneficial.

It is possible that this could be the case.

Our writing staff is varied and passionate about arts, literature, film, travel, music, and entertainment.

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