New Museum/Mary Heilmann/Elizabeth Peyton


Standing across Bowery and looking at the stacked cubes of the New Museum at night, I was torn: as a broad gesture, I’m all for the rainbow-striped “HELL, YES!” above the entrance because it feels up-to-date, a slang-friendly, celebratory “Come on in! Check it out!” And yet as a fixed signal, it’s flawed – what’s with the comma? “Hell” comma “Yes!”? I wish I could have waved the magic wand and made it say “HELL YEAH!”, since that’s what “HELL, YES!” is really trying to say (but afraid? posturing? tone-deaf? what?!?)  When you go so bold with your Art Museum welcome mat, it’s got to hold up to scrutiny but “HELL, YES!” comes off as phony-hip, a tip of the curator’s hand. “Yo! Yo – check out the New Museum! Modern confidence in support of post-modern relativity!” Hell yeah?

New Museum If I was a building I’d definitely make out with the New Museum and it’s  sexy, uneven stacks, like a citified cross between Bauhaus, “Falling  Water” and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. My friend Steve lamented the  lack of light coming from the middle of the stacks and he was right –  it felt underused and so it underwhelmed. But I assume they’ve got  light-switches for all that, so I didn’t mind, figuring we were catching  it in just one of endless configurations. It made me think of the ad-  campaign, which was brilliant: a few rows of pictures that captured the  building being built with “New Museum” and the address at the  bottom. It was fixed in my mind from afar and so standing before it  was like a little dream come true…

 Two shows were going on at the New Museum at the time of my visit:  “Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone” on floors 1 and 2 and “Live Forever:  Elizabeth Peyton” on 3 and 4. I knew of Mary Heilmann exclusively  through Peter Schjeldahl’s review in the New Yorker, which I’d read on  the plane flying out and I knew of Elizabeth Peyton in general as an art-star at all the Whitney Biennial’s and, again, from the New Yorker (are there better places to read Exhibit reviews?) So I had very little preconception of,  or experience with, the work. 

“Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone” starts on the entry-level of the New Museum in a long, rectangular, glass-walled room. She was a beachy California girl before moving to New York in  the 70’s and sharpening her blade but the initial feel is very stoned-in-Malibu. Sunny shades  of yellow and green, Hockney-esque tans and water-blues cover canvases and happily-imperfect pottery in pretty standard abstract-minimalist portions. The most memorable  impression of that first room was the casual, almost sloppy, way she copped from the big boys: Barnett Newman’s box-of-color within colored space; Rothko’s rectangular nimbuses; Ellsworth Kelly’s tones, geometry and irregular-canvases. It’s not that they were unattractive, necessarily, they were just so expressively vague, a bubble-lettered, rainbow-striped “What’s the point?”

We took the unadorned city-loft stairs to the second floor for the bulk of Mary Heilmann’s exhibit and right off the bat a painting resonated. One canvas, broken apart as a triptych with, left-to-right, the first two thirds a wash of black split lengthwise by a thin pink line and the last third a wash of pink around an off-centered black square, the painting is called “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. Stepping back, I was suddenly in 1970’s New York, old Velvet Underground playing distorted from the phonograph, cigarette butts and roaches filling an ashtray on the coffeetable. I could see this painting propped against her apartment wall, wet paint gleaming in the stark floodlight. Her state of mind, her story, was as present and clear as the silence after a record ends: when we’re alone we anticipate togetherness; when we’re together we suppress loneliness.


The first two thirds of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” are heavy, a lonely void split by a tantalizing wisp of social energy. The last third, the pink panel, is like champagne at a party, the tongue-touch of connection and company, loss of inhibition, swirl of sex, the void of loneliness beleaguered but not defeated, it’s back against the wall for the night. The tension and release of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is palpable in person, as real and felt on the wall of the New Museum as it had to have been still wet in her apartment. The more I basked, the more I found myself focusing on her flirty finishing touch, a self-conscious signature strewn throughout her canvases: down on the right side, in the panel of pink, she left two dripped black streaks, so out of place amongst the formal perfection, they scream for attention. And that’s her hook, her exertion of “being someone”: self-consciously placed sloppiness, awkward fumbling, so that nothing’s resolved. It’s like she’d rather dork herself out than let the party or the painting or the basking die…

Done basking, we got on the elevator to check out Elizabeth Peyton. The elevator: so plastic-feeling and tropical green, the walls had to be done in material salvaged from the set of Elvis’s “Blue Hawaii”. Kind of interesting, I thought, to reconcile the elevator’s technicolor interior to what one imagines standing across Bowery at night, gazing up…

I hadn’t realized Elizabeth Peyton was primarily a portraitist until reading her bio on the wall of her show. I’d had the sense over the last few years of vague familiarity that she was on the more Conceptual tip – of course, she is, in a way but it’s funny how a modern artist’s reputation can get so distantly tethered, like a high, silvery kite tied to the shore-rocks down below. Elizabeth Peyton! Elizabeth Peyton! Now what does she do, exactly?

Well, it’s simple: she paints and draws portraits of whomever she feels, from historical figures to famous artists to present friends, often aping the technical style relevant to her subject. She’s basically the portraitist to her own frame of reference, which, if you think about it, is really cool – no boundaries, no sittings, no benefactors. If you can shuck, then the world’s your oyster.

peyton_napoleon Can she shuck? I thought the show started promisingly, with a penciled-  portrait of Napoleon, done very classically, except the paper had a torn  edges and she had scrawled “Napoleon” across the page. I would have  been  unimpressed, I think, had she played it straight, letting her aped-  expertise  do all the talking, leaving no evidence of the artist at work –  but with this  Napoleon portrait and, later in the show, with a Bowie  portrait, the test-run messiness and evident-idolizing make the portraits  memorable as  works of modern art. Yes, she can draw with the best of  them – but she’s  also a giddy fan.

  peyton_libertinesSo what the fuck’s up with most of the rest of this show? It’s a bunch of American and English pop stars drawn and painted with the brush blase’ from semi-familiar pop magazine photographs, interspersed with fetishized but emotionally tepid, faux-candid portraits of her pals. Where’s the enthusiasm, the art-star swagger, the idealization, the hook of understanding of others that makes for successful portraiture? For real. I felt like half the show was High School Seniors painting Spin Magazine covers. They were so familiar, I could have nailed the dates.

On the glass-half-empty side, I got the impression that Elizabeth Peyton was an “Art Culture” phenomenon, a winner of a critical phase’s popularity contest, as though maybe she threw the most fabulous post-show parties. Not a single one of these Pete Doherty portraits is going to “live forever” because Elizabeth Peyton painted it – they’re both way too faddist for that. Which is kind of a shame, because it’s a great idea – that your talent can transcend time to create and that those creations can then transcend time. But there’s got to be some fucking soul in it. Glass half empty: this is the most half-assed display of talent from one of the most overhyped artists of our time.

peyton_nick Half-full: Napoleon, Bowie and one strangely revelatory friend-  portrait, nearly lost in the mix, called “Nick reading Moby Dick”. First  off, it appears painted from life, not a photograph (whether that’s  true or not I have no idea, since so many of the others are so  obviously from photographs). The background is all stormy-Matisse,  the subject, Nick, pale and contemplative with some of the person- presence you find in Lucien Freud. Good portrait, you can feel how he  feels coarsing through you, the slight chill in his shoulders, the testosterone-tenseness of a serious young man. And then in his  hands is a book that the title tells us is “Moby Dick” and suddenly  we’re transcending fucking space and time, connecting the spangles  of the Canon to a chair in the backyard, showing believably how a  young person in two-thousand-something looks and feels in the  throes of the past, the mind-crank turning, the world opening up,  death so far away, Nick thinks he’s gonna live forever – and, because  of Elizabeth Peyton, he just might…

New Museum/Mary Heilmann/Elizabeth Peyton

One thought on “New Museum/Mary Heilmann/Elizabeth Peyton

  1. “I felt like half the show was High School Seniors painting Spin Magazine covers. They were so familiar, I could have nailed the dates.” This is exactly how i felt about the show. Pretty pictures, but I had a hard time caring about any of it.

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