The Obamas arrive at the New Museum

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Two big attractions of the season—Carsten Höller’s hotel room and Pipilotti Rist’s video (see my Dec. 2 and 3 posts)—occupy a serious amount of space in their respective museums. A third, Elizabeth Peyton’s portrait of Michelle and Sasha Obama at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, is tiny but carried much intrigue when it was unveiled on November 5th. To a flurry of press coverage, Michelle and Sasha Obama listening to Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention August 2008 joined portraits of Peyton’s friends, lovers and idols in the painter’s retrospective, Live Forever.When I visited this late addition to the show, I was surprised to find that the painting had its own security detail. Or at least that’s what it looked like. In fact, the hovering guard was waiting for some contractors and soon disappeared, ruining my fantasy that the piece was so portentous that it needed special protection. Truth was, I wanted to be more impressed by the painting than I was.

Though the portrait was surely meant as a tribute, it is anything but flattering. Notably, Peyton chose to emphasize a puffiness around Obama’s mouth, reversing her usual practice of prettying up her subjects (take, for instance her 1994 version of Ludwig II of Bavaria who, with hair flying, red lips pursed and a distant dreamy gaze, is more fashionista than monarch). In the same gallery, a portrait of a harrowed-looking Matthew Barney suggest a modern day, tortured Van Gogh character via which his expression and surroundings. But while the layered line and color on Barney’s face give him a weathered gravitas, the same technique leaves Obamas’ features streaky. Maybe Kehinde Wiley can give Peyton a lesson in depicting a range of skin tones, though it probably won’t be necessary since the closest she normally comes to portraying diversity is painting her partner in an afro wig.

Michelle Obama’s character continues to be the subject of national debate, but Peyton gives the future first mother and first lady an ambiguous expression that is simultaneously bored and tired though infused with a glint of excitement. Likewise, it’s unclear what Peyton had in mind with Obama’s pose, which seems too casual for the momentous occasion. During a moment of high energy, the family looks wiped out, which may indicate their sacrifice, but not much more. Of course, Peyton is painting not from life or the experience of meeting her subject, but from appropriated news footage. But her distance, even her lack of apparent enthusiasm, keeps the painting from being persuasive political art much less portraiture. Its understatement is the antithesis of the elation or disappointment felt by the nation on November 5.

What do you think of the painting? Is it good political art? Will we even remember it in a year or two? Post a comment.


  1. Marc Mayer says:

    Merrily, You are totally right about this portrait. It reminds me of Kodak color film in the 70’s and 80’s having difficulty capturing darker skin. I am not sure Wiley is the best “master” of painting for Peyton to learn from, but perhaps Barkley L. Hendricks. I recently saw The Birth of Cool at the Studio Museum and the man can really paint. I enjoyed the show.

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  2. Jennifer Doyle says:

    I’ve always suspected that Peyton’s “thing” wouldn’t work well for people who don’t glow with the palour of the east coast cosmopolitan set that normally people her paintings. I like the comparison to Wiley. We can learn a lot from comparing the two – the casualness of Peyton’s touch, vs the high technical mastery of Wiley’s. The seductiveness of her paintings is related to how loose they feel, how casual and casually drawn they appear. (Which of course takes enormous talent & skill – but it’s effect depends on downplaying that.) Wiley’s is the opposite – full-on mastery of convention, almost overwhelming in his control over the medium – in which the paintings seem to nearly take over their subjects. I think of it as the difference between that version of white wealth in which people walk around in ripped up jeans & never clean their kitchens – and the formality of sunday at a black church where everybody turns out in their finest. Show up to a Peyton opening, and you’ll see a lot of $300 jeans. Show up to a Wiley opening, and you’ll see men in nice suits and ladies in hats. At least, that’s how his opening went in LA a couple years back!

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  3. Lizzypea says:

    This is exactly what I talk about in my “Painting or Profession” blog post last week at http://www.blizzypea.blogspot.com. I can’t comment on this painting because I am not seeing it in situ, but the whole enterprise stinks of opportunism. It’s not surprising that someone said Payton cannot seem to handle people who have not stepped out of fashion magazines, flat white people blown out by spot lights so that wrinkles become the stuff of myth. Pictures never lie, do they? I’ve never believed in Payton, and now even less. Yuk!

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  4. I like the portrait of Michelle Obama. It has mood and colour and is interesting.

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  5. n says:

    sad, sad,sad… this artist must have be going through life very sad & unfulfilled :(

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