‘Kurt” is among the portraits Elizabeth Peyton painted of musician Kurt Cobain. (courtesy:Flag Art Foundation)

Elizabeth Peyton attracted attention in the mid-1990s not because her work was any good – that would take years – but because it catered to certain hankerings (for beauty, for human connection, for the rush of infatuation) that up until then the art world had grimly suppressed. People were disproportionately grateful.

With her smooching, facile portraits of historical figures like Napoleon, Ludwig II of Bavaria, and a young Princess Elizabeth (the future queen), Peyton indulged impulses of preening romance that are usually the province of pop music. Such tendencies became explicit when she started painting from photographs of doomed or dandyish rock stars like Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, and Jarvis Cocker.

It’s almost always wonderful when artists dare to be shameless – to go ahead and paint what they want. The trouble was, little of Peyton’s early work rose above the standard of lackluster fashion illustration, or of those saccharine, on-the spot portraits made by street artists in tourist traps.
Still, we can be thankful that she was encouraged by the kind reception extended to her early work, because she has gone on to produce one of the most daring and exquisite oeuvres in contemporary art. I fell completely for Peyton as I ambled through “Live Forever,” the retrospective at the New Museum here, feeling more and more like a mopey, heart-struck teenager every minute.

Many of you will not want to give in to such feelings, deeming them indecently frivolous. So let me try and convince you otherwise.

The first thing to say is that, over a relatively short space of time, Peyton learned to paint. Above all, she became a scintillating colorist, giving her colors an airy expansiveness and oozing fluidity as she brushed them onto Masonite rather than canvas.

Getting pleasure from the process gradually took on more importance for her than rote reiterations of a given mood. Consequently, the atmospheres conjured by her paintings became more interesting.
Compare, for instance, two paintings typical of Peyton’s output: Both are of rock stars and both are based on photographs already in the public domain.

The first, of Keith Richards, shows the Rolling Stone close-up in profile. The tones are dark and mournful. The touches of ruby red and purple in Richards’s shadowed, downcast eyes and the delicacy with which his bejeweled fingers touch his chin give him an appearance at once precious and damaged.
The image of Eminem, by contrast, shows him not as the felonious hip-hop star we’ve come to know and love, but as a little boy of almost preternatural beauty having the buttons of his winter jacket done up by some invisible adult. His face is painted with red and pink stripes which zing against long hair the color of orange rind; he wears a festive crown, and he stares at us with dark, unblinking eyes. The extraordinary intensity of this stare is accentuated by his white, unblemished complexion.

The immediacy of the image is unmanning. If Richards resembles a shipwreck at night, this boy could be the lighthouse.

But the images have a lot in common, too. In both, Peyton uses color and brushwork to calibrate exquisite contrasts between proximity and distance – not just physically but emotionally too. Her paintings of the famous dead and living are not just love letters to far-off objects of mass infatuation. They are love letters to present-tense moods that, once extinguished, are difficult to rekindle.

It’s important to talk about the paintings themselves, because there’s a tendency to talk about Peyton as a social phenomenon – the ex-wife of Rirkrit Tiravanija and the friend of artists such as Matthew Barney and Maurizio Cattelan; the chronicler of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1990s and beyond; the recorder of a decade and a half of pop culture obsessions.

Unfortunately the catalog essay by curator Laura Hoptman plays up these aspects. Personally, I don’t care for any of it. I find the best of her paintings too suggestive of the sensuality of indolence to make me give a fig about sociology.

One of the biggest influences on Peyton is David Hockney. At a time when abstraction, Minimalism, and stiff-jawed seriousness were all the go, Hockney painted and drew virtuoso portraits of famous intimates with hedonistic relish. The connections between Hockney and Peyton run deep, and have been acknowledged by Peyton, who has made several portraits based on photos of Hockney as a young man.

But the more I look at Peyton, the more I think not of Hockney but of Matisse in Nice in the decade after World War I. Like Peyton, Matisse alternated in those years between painting reality (his daughter, the views from his hotel window) and painting fantasy (girls posing as odalisques against makeshift, theatrical backdrops that no one was expected to believe in).

He became less concerned with flat expanses of saturated color and more interested in light, which he rendered with loose, airy brushstrokes, delighting in stripes and patterns, gorgeous color contrasts and creamy atmospheres. Like Peyton, he was motivated by beauty and sensuality, but not limited by them. Rather, he sensitively orchestrated the distance between himself and his objects of desire, creating a kind of tension between artifice and reality that remains as exquisite as it is elusive.

Peyton is hardly in the same class as Matisse. She seems to miss as often as she hits, and the misses can be really dreadful: kitschy, clumsy, often both. But there is an imperious, melancholy flavor to the Nice paintings that I often detect in Peyton’s work too. The paintings of both artists are ravishingly sensual, and yet frankly attuned to their own hamminess. They flirt knowingly with disappointment and disbelief.

It’s interesting, too, that Peyton, whose success has spurred many detractors, faces the same kinds of criticisms Matisse faced during the Nice years. He was accused of complacency, shamelessness, and playing to the market when he moved to Nice, while Peyton is criticized for making saleable commodities that valorize glamour.

“Fine, if you say so,” is about all one can say in response. But why not really look at the paintings? Why not give yourself over to the tremendous expanse of lazily brushed-in, cotton-candy pink set off by isolated outbreaks of dark chocolate, maroon, and scarlet in “Spencer Drawing”? Why not delight in the tour-de-force of stripes and lollipop colors in “Ben Drawing”? Or why not succumb to the gorgeously casual holiday atmosphere of the three self-portraits, “L.A. (E.P.),” “Live to Ride (E.P.),” and “E.P. Reading (self-portrait)”?

In the end, I love the unlikeliness of Peyton’s success. Who would have thought that one of the most acclaimed and closely watched artists of our time would be a young woman who paints small, unabashedly girly portraits in oils on board – pictures that have no tough-guy conceptual underpinning to speak of?

Compare Peyton to Barney (the subject of one of her recent portraits) and it’s hard to believe that they’ve been borne aloft by the same art world. But they have, which is what makes contemporary art generally – and my job in particular – so much fun.

Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe