Elizabeth Peyton smiled when I asked if I could interview her, but was reticent. She told me that she had previous bad experiences. But then she said yes, and the interview took place in the back seats of a big black German car at seven o’ clock in the morning, on the highway between the Austrian border and Munich airport.
Elizabeth, when did you decide to become an artist?
It was not a decision. It is like it happened to me. As a child I was always drawing, listening to music and reading. I had no idea that I would be allowed to do that, I had no idea that I would be an artist. I never understood how passionate I was about what I was doing. It seemed so normal.
And then what happened?
I was living in Connecticut and when I turned 17 I moved to New York City and went to the School of Visual Arts on 23rd Street. I don’t think I was anything special, but I enjoyed what I was doing. I went to the School from 1983 to 1987. Making figurative paintings of characters from Stendhal novels was not popular.
Was it, as people say, a portrait of the young Napoleon by Baron Gros that changed your life?
One summer I read a couple of books, one of which was by Vincent Cronin, and that book changed my life. In it I understood something about portraiture, that in a picture of a person, in that person you could see the whole time they lived in. Reading the story of Napoleon it hit me that one person can totally change the world. I understood that was what I wanted to do, that this is why I would make portraits. It made me feel that it was important. A person is the receptacle of everything that is happening.
What about photography? Did it change the meaning of a painted portrait?
I take photos all the time. Painting is a way to express all the layers and also memory. Sometimes when I make a painting of a person I feel so many things. A painting is like a vessel where a lot of things get contained. So I feel more of an urgency and how necessary it is. I would say I am a painter. I paint mostly in oil, I spend time drawing and making prints, it helps my painting. A lot of people make prints after they did the painting, I do it before.
Who were your teachers?
Musicians, writers, Velasquez, Goya, Manet, Giorgione, Cezanne, Sargent, Balzac, Oscar Wilde (he was really the beginning), Proust, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo and so many others.
Were you immediately successful?
I was excited that I got a gallery when I left school. I had jobs until I was 28. I was a messenger, a photo editor, an artist’s assistant; and then I took the jump. I thought I have to have faith and it will work out. Everybody was horrified by my work. Figurative work that had an uncritical attitude to beauty and love in the early 90’s was just the wrong thing, but I felt it was what was missing. I think I did not realise how convicted I was that it was special. It seemed normal to me.
But were you successful?
Yes, and so I could keep on painting. When I was 25 I met Gavin Brown, who was my dealer until this year. I had a feeling then that I needed a very tough dealer who was showing conceptual art and not one who was dealing with pretty paintings. Gavin understood that people love paintings. He was never wrong. We really met and grew together; it was a very powerful event and it gave us some extra power to fight and understand even more what we believed in; and our success was parallel. I kept trying to get closer to what I believed in. I had mostly painted historical figures or characters from novels but around the time I met Gavin I realised that I could paint people of my time – that they had the same thing in them. Of course I was interested in painting someone without being corny or descriptive. I became more successful and had more opportunities.
Is figurative art coming back?
It never went away. I am into painting, I don’t think if it is figurative or abstract. I don’t always like figurative painting just for the sake of it. I love all kinds of art – all mediums.
Who are the contemporary artists you like?
There are so many.
Do you have a passion for music?
I have a passion for a lot of things: art, music, literature and landscape.
You live in New York, but you move around a lot. Why?
It’s a long story. I think there are a couple of reasons that make me travel so much. When you change location you introduce an unknown element that makes you know better what affects your work and I like that.
Are you mysterious?
(She smiles) I don’t know.
How do you work?
It depends. For every new show I pace myself in a certain way that I don’t articulate. In the last months before the show I work every day. I cannot keep up the “momentum” all the time, it is too much. I take breaks, drawing or printing, but then later it comes into my work.
You seem to be interested in fashion. You recently worked with Dries van Noten and did an interview with him?
He was inspired by two paintings of mine. We made an interview together for the FT and he talks about it. I am interested in all the decisions that make you decide what to wear. I like the meeting between the designer and the buyer. It is a kind of imagining the possibility of how life could be and also makes everything look better. It is a way of self-expressing how you feel. In relation to art, what I feel right now, not for ever.
What do you think about the art market?
It is not that I don’t know about it and I am also part of it, but this morning there is nothing I have to say about it. Actually, I can say something. It is great that so many artists have been culturally valuable. Today people pay some artists a million times more than they pay doctors.
Is it not amazing?
The money itself is not so interesting as what it signifies of art being the most valuable thing. I don’t think people are wrong. Other than life there is art.
Talent and masterpieces are not so numerous anyway?
They are special because there are not many. I feel close to lots of artists who are friends of mine. I share a point of view with them.
Today do you think that there is a sort of New York School?
The art world today is giant, everyone is travelling all the time in that world. The art world is expanding and maybe there is a New York School, but I have no idea. Art is always interesting at an individual level, it is always a good time for art and great art is always made.
Did you change much over the years?
I did and I didn’t. I feel that I still believe in what I was believing at age twelve, but I think I keep wanting to find different ways to express myself and I am hungry for learning, and that brings me in different directions too. I try to be much less literal, maybe I want a different magic from my paintings. It was not wrong or bad what I did, it is just finding my way.
You have a new show coming up in November in Brussels. What kind of work will you show?
I have no idea. I always work to the last minute. I like to work under threat. That is the way it happens. I love that moment, it is an incredible feeling.
How do you feel about having your paintings hanging in museums?
I am very happy. I had a retrospective in 2008 and then it travelled for a year. I suddenly saw all together a hundred paintings that I have done, and some I had forgotten. To see them in different frames from all over the world, it was a very overwhelming feeling: “Oh God, I made all this stuff!”
Are you sometimes afraid of losing your talent?
After every picture I feel like it is all over. I cannot count on tomorrow. But the worst thing would be to lose my passion and my curiosity that leads me to make the picture. That would be the worst thing that could happen, other than death.
Photo of Elizabeth Peyton by Inez and Vinoodh.
August 13th, 2014