Born Elizabeth Joy Peyton in 1965 in Danbury, CT; daughter of candlemakers; married Rirkrit Tiravenija (an artist), early 1990s (divorced). Education: Earned degree from the School of Visual Arts, 1987.
First solo show held at the Althea Viafora Gallery, 1987; assistant to the artist Ronald Jones, c. 1987–90; researcher with PhotoReporters, a stock image company, c. 1990–93; solo show at the Chelsea Hotel, 1993; signed with dealer Gavin Brown; included in a three-person show, "Projects 60," at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1997; invited to show at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, New York City.
Elizabeth Peyton's portraits of rock stars and other celebrities have made her one of the most-talked-about American artists of her generation. She and another New York-based contemporary artist, John Currin, have been hailed as the painters who brought figurative art—that which uses the human figure as its subject matter—back into fashion after a long absence. "I felt that you could see a person's time in their face—especially the particular moment when they're about to become what they'll become" she told Dodie Kazanjian in Vogue about what drew her to portraiture. "They just shine, and everybody around them can feel it."
Born in 1965, Peyton grew up in Danbury, Connecticut, where her father and stepmother had a candle-making business. She was born with only two fingers on her right hand, and so she learned to draw with her left hand. In interviews, she has said that she was fascinated by celebrities even as a child, particularly the tennis and ice-skating stars of the 1970s, but her interests took a musical turn when her older sister introduced her to the seminal British punk band The Clash. "There was nothing else like that in Connecticut," she recalled in an interview with music journalist Jon Savage for the Guardian. "Hearing those records, I felt like I wasn't such a freak, that there was a bigger world than Connecticut, where I was going crazy."
Peyton escaped Connecticut for New York City when she enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Her art had tended toward portraiture already by then, and usually featured her friends as characters out of novels she liked. These she painted from photographs she took, and she tried to do commissions at one point while still in school, but "it was always a disaster," she told Vogue's Kazanjian. She struggled for many years after graduating in 1987; she had a solo show at a Soho gallery that same year, but would not have another for six years. To make ends meet she worked as an assistant to an artist, and then as a photo researcher for a company that provided stock photos to magazines.
Peyton's next solo exhibition received a fair amount of press attention, and some terrific reviews from critics. It was held in a single room at the legendary Chelsea Hotel in 1993, and featured her black-and-white drawings of Napoleon, Oscar Wilde, and other historical figures. There was even a portrait of King Ludwig II, known as the mad prince of Bavaria, whom she depicted bowing before a sculpture of Marie Antoinette. The eccentric Ludwig, who died in 1886, reportedly caressed the cheeks of a bust he owned of the French queen every time he went past it, and required two staffers to do the same. One of Peyton's earliest champions was the critic Jerry Saltz, who claimed that "you get lost in her work the way you do in a book," he asserted in a review of the show for Art in America. "The thought in her work is extremely alluring. I kept wishing I could see scores more of the little drawings—a whole encyclopedia of ephemeral historical moments."
Peyton moved on to painting rock icons soon afterward, and a 1995 show at a Soho gallery called Gavin Brown's Enterprise was filled with her iconic images of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, who had died the year before. Subsequent works immortalized Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, and even a few among a newer wave of British rockers such as Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis. "Although painterly in a traditional sense," Savage reflected in his Guardian article, "her work is reminiscent of those 1960s fan magazine competitions: young women around the world sending in their drawings of Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, John Lennon—the votive, often overlooked feminine response to pop."
Other cultural chroniclers were less kind in their assessments of Peyton's work, with one noting that "it's at once silly and extremely clever for her to make work that hangs around like so many posters of celebrities on a pining teenager's bedroom wall," declared Sarah Valdez in one Art in America review. A turning point in her career came, however, in 1997 with a Museum of Modern Art group show, Projects 60, that featured her work alongside that of Currin and another emerging artist, Luc Tuymans. Both the New Yorker and the New York Times published laudatory reviews, with the latter periodical's Roberta Smith writing that Peyton "divides her passion between process and subject, turning rock stars and friends alike into beautiful young poets, flowers so fresh that their withering is poignantly tangible."
Peyton's work began to earn attention in Britain as well, and she showed at a London gallery, Sadie Coles HQ, as well as at Brown's Enterprise space back home. She did her first self-portrait when American Vogue wanted to include her in a story about new contemporary painters in 2003 which would feature all self-portraits, and that image was selected for inclusion in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. This prestigious exhibit, staged at the Whitney Museum of New York City every two years, showcases the most noteworthy new American visual artists. Peyton's self-portrait was even chosen to appear on the 2004 Biennial's exhibition poster. Reviewing the art-world event for the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl asserted that "the distilled allure of her little pictures makes them, for me, the moral center of the Biennial. Her romantic aestheticism charges her swift line and intense color with a sense of the sacred."
In 2005, one of Peyton's works, a portrait of John Lennon, fetched a career-high $800,000 at auction. A year later, New York magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential New Yorkers for its 2006 rankings issue, asserting she had "brought portraiture into the 21st century." She lives with a fellow artist named Tony Just, whom she often paints, on the North Fork peninsula of Long Island. There she works in a basement studio. "In the studio I had in New York, I could never work until the late afternoon, when the sun had gone down," she told Kazanjian in the Vogue interview. "Here, I'm not bothered by how beautiful it is outside."
Selected solo exhibitions
Althea Viafora Gallery, 1987.
Chelsea Hotel, New York, NY, 1993.
Gavin Brown's Enterprise, New York, NY, 1995.
Selected group exhibitions
Projects 60 (with Luc Tuymans and John Currin), Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY 1997.
Young Americans II, Saatchi Gallery, London, England, 1998.
Examining Pictures, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, England, 1999.
Greater New York, PS1, Long Island City, NY, 2000.
New to the Modern; Recent Acquisition from the Department of Drawing, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 2001.
Dear Painter/Paint Me, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France, 2002.
Drawing Now; Eight Propositions, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002.
II Quarto Sesso, Stazione Leopolda, Florence, Italy, 2003.
Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, 2004.
North Fork/South Fork East End Art Now, The Parrish Art Museum, Southhampton, NY, 2005.
Art in America, May 1994, p. 122; March 2002, p. 128.
Guardian (London, England), December 20, 1996, p. 2.
Independent (London, England), February 21, 1998, p. 24.
New York, May 15, 2006.
New Yorker, March 22, 2004.
New York Times, August 1, 1997.
Vogue, December 2003, p. 304; October 2004, p. 358.