Known for her intimate portrayals of solitary human figures, Elizabeth Peyton’s star-studded oeuvre has reimagined the celebrity portrait as a commentary on the trappings of fame and the proliferation of the photographic image. Painted in 1995, the same year as her inclusion in the Venice Biennale, John Lennon 1965 (Hotel) is a vibrant example of Peyton’s compelling translation of appropriated photographs into rich, personal representations of their subjects. Critic Roberta Smith, writing the same year as the painting was executed, noted that Peyton’s works “shed light on the ways 80s appropriation continues to proliferate in the 90s; on the hold that realism, manipulated to varying degrees, exerts on young artists, and also on the emotionalism inherent in a lot of current work” (R. Smith, “Blood and Punk Royalty to Grunge Royalty,” New York Times, May 24, 1995). A force behind the early 1990s return to painting and figuration, Peyton nonetheless retains a healthy balance of Conceptualist thought and Pop Art panache. By stylizing her models and allowing them to revel in saturated palettes, the painter also draws upon the history of portraiture, and connects contemporary figuration with more traditional models throughout time.
Rendered in the Peyton’s trademark painterly strokes, John Lennon 1965 (Hotel) shows the Beatle in his mid-20s lounging on a red couch against a vibrantly decorated red and orange wall. Wearing a white shirt, black trousers and a blue tie with white spots, the subject holds a cigarette between two fingers of his right hand in a lackadaisical fashion. Though in repose, Peyton portrays Lennon as palpably uncomfortable as the entire picture plane seems to tilt slightly toward the viewer. This visual shift, as well as Peyton’s typical use of red lips and feminizing features on her subjects, creates an air that is both inviting and uneasy. Iwona Blazwick remarked on this use of the diagonal on the occasion of Peyton’s retrospective at the New Museum in New York in 2008, writing, “Against the architectonic internal structure of Peyton’s images, her figures lounge, lean, or sway. They are all on the diagonal. But it is not the directional diagonal of the revolutionary avant-gardes that points upwards to a utopian future. Rather these figures – their youth, their beauty, and the moment of time they inhabit – are about to fall. This sense of something fleeting and vulnerable is intensified by the delicacy of Peyton’s drawing” (I. Blazwick, “Excessive Life,” in Elizabeth Peyton: Live Forever, exh. cat., New York, New Museum, 2008, p. 232). Creating a visual tension that offsets the recognizability of her often-famous subjects, Peyton is able to play with the viewer’s experience of both the familiar and the ordinary. One may not recognize Lennon in Peyton’s image at first, and this is precisely where her works operate. The fact that the figure is named as such and borrows the pose and features from a famous photograph helps the viewer to more aptly recognize the artist’s rendition. Because people like Lennon are so ingrained in the collective consciousness, our brains immediately try to recognize the late musician’s face in Peyton’s brushwork. If she had created a one-to-one copy of the source image, these mental gymnastics would not be necessary and the absorptive power of works like John Lennon 1965 (Hotel) would be muted.
Born in Connecticut, Peyton studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in the late 1980s. Upon graduation, she started sketching portraits of famous figures from history as well as a series of paintings centered around Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Her interest in depicting celebrities grew as she began to gain traction, however by interspersing her portraits of Cobain, Lennon and others with images of her close friends and acquaintances, she brought about a questioning of image culture and fame in a similar vein to that found in Andy Warhol’s portrait works. “There is no separation for me between people I know through their music or photos and someone I know personally,” the artist noted. “The way I perceive them is very similar, in that there’s no difference between certain qualities that I find inspiring in them” (E. Peyton, quoted in S. Lafreniere, “A Conversation with the Artist,” Elizabeth Peyton, New York, 2005, p. 16). Focusing on the emotive qualities of pose, color and brushwork while also thinking conceptually about extant photographs as well as their dispersal in print media and their inherent power, Peyton has established a practice that straddles the line between figurative painting and postmodern cultural critique.
As with many of her portraits, John Lennon 1965 (Hotel) is based on a photograph readily available online. The original black-and-white image shows Lennon in a hotel room after he publicly apologized for asserting that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Sitting near a small table with a phone, some glasses and an ashtray, the musician has a downcast gaze as he slumps against the floral wallpaper. Commenting on the cult of celebrity and the constant proliferation of images that comes with fame, Peyton extracts her subjects from otherwise ordinary scenes to place them in a more intimate mode. Her penchant for unadorned backgrounds and bright colors has drawn connections to the work of David Hockney and Alex Katz, but unlike those painters, she succumbs to the lustrous nature of the brush and uses the paint to create an emotional energy. “That’s what it’s all about - making art is making something live forever,” Peyton noted in a conversation with Jarvis Cocker. “Human beings especially - we can’t hold on to them in any way. Painting and art is a way of holding onto things and making things go on through time” (E. Peyton, quoted in J. Cocker, “Elizabeth Peyton,” Interview, Nov. 26, 2008). It is this ability to preserve a likeness and the psyche of the individual behind it that has allied Peyton with the return to figuration in the early 1990s. However, it is her interest in using photographs and transporting the sitter from snapshot to a realm more reminiscent of a court painting that has continued to make Peyton’s work relevant.