Executed at a significant moment in the artist's career, Elizabeth Peyton's 1995 portrait of celebrated contemporary artist Franz Ackermann emerges in lustrous strokes of onyx, auburn and crimson. Created the same year as Peyton's debut at the Venice Biennale, Franz in Hamburg captures a moment of introspection by her subject, a quiet and thoughtful confidence that she might have found appealing at the time of conception. Like an illuminated leaf from a Book of Hours, Peyton's Franz in Hamburg emits an aura of otherworldliness in its very representation of the everyday, a sentiment which is only further augmented by the halo of what is almost certainly Hamburg's railway station. With the tendrils of Franz's hair fluttering in the soft breeze, Peyton captures a fleeting moment, one seemingly on the cusp of curling into a wisp of smoke. In its romantic style and personal viewpoint, Peyton's art plays with notions of reality, representation and identity.
Previously known for painting portraits of people that appealed or impressed her in some way, Peyton had such varied historical 'muses' as Napoleon, Ludwig II and the British royal family. 1995 marks a pivotal moment in Peyton's practice, one where she began to fully embrace a wider range of more contemporaneous subjects alongside her traditional historical and literary figures. Her subjects now included Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, and friends in the contemporary art world such as the Chapman Brothers and David Hockney. Essential to Peyton's ultimate choice of subject is the possibility of her identifying with and, in many ways, becoming one with her sitter's own world or reality. Of this Peyton has said, 'I think about how influential some people are in others' lives. So it doesn't matter who they are or how famous they are but rather how beautiful is the way they live their lives and how inspiring they are for others. And I find this in people I see frequently as much as in people I never met' (E. Peyton quoted in F. Bonami, 'We've Been Looking at Images for so Long That We've Forgotten Who We Are', Flash Art International, Vol. XXIX, No. 187, Mar-Apr 1996, p. 84).
Peyton may have initially been introduced to Ackermann in 1993 through the German gallerist Burkhard Riemschneider or through Gavin Brown's enterprise where they both exhibited in 1995. Instead of depicting the famous abstract artist surrounded by the trappings of his craft, Peyton elicits the very essence of Ackermann's person as he walks the streets of Hamburg. '[Fascinated] by the decisions that people make about what they like, what they adorn themselves with,' Peyton moves beyond Ackermann's reputation as the great abstract artist and depicts him in a Death Metal shirt that presents to us a personal taste very much apart from his professional aesthetic (E. Peyton quoted in S. Lafreniere, 'A Conversation with the Artist', Elizabeth Peyton, New York 2005, p. 252). Much like her predecessor David Hockney, Peyton illustrates her subjects in moments that are both intimate and casual; in the present work, the viewer is offered a moment of voyeurism, the feeling of passing Franz on the street and sensing a familiarity about his person that would compel them to glance back and watch him walk away.