Elizabeth Peyton, best known for bedroom-style portraits of fellow artists, friends and musicians, has taken a more sublime stab at the Romantic in a show titled “Wagner” at Gallery Met, a first-floor exhibition space at the Metropolitan Opera. Peyton was commissioned to execute a new body of work, and spent nearly a year preparing some two dozen oil paintings, prints and drawings for her show. Most of the pieces are narrative, illustrating particular scenes and characters from Die Walküre, the second cycle of the opera The Ring. Unlike much of Peyton’s richly colored output, the works on paper here are more subduded; washy grays and earth tones predominate. A number of them are installed outside Gallery Met, such as throughout the lower level of the opera house, and in a glass case at the top of the main staircase. Peyton’s exhibition overlaps with the Met’s performance of Die Walküre, which premieres on Apr. 22. “Wagner” opened in late February, and will remain on view through the end of the 2010–11 season.
LEIGH ANNE MILLER: When did Gallery Met approach you about this project, and how specific was their “assignment”?
ELIZABETH PEYTON: Last spring, [Gallery Met director] Dodie Kazanjian asked me if I would be interested in doing a show about Wagner at the Met, specifically Die Walküre. I think those were the only specifics.
MILLER: Was it difficult to create work under their guidelines?
PEYTON: There weren’t any guidelines really except the subject, and I felt I could be as abstract in thinking as I wanted. I didn’t know too much about Wagner or his music, except for the soundtrack to the movie Ludwig, directed by Visconti. It was moving getting to know the music. How I went about making the work wasn’t so different. But there was something very liberating about preparing for a show that’s not at a proper art institution. I liked knowing that the work was going straight into the world.
MILLER: Your work also spills out into other spaces within the opera house. Why was it important to you to not be confined to just the gallery?
PEYTON: When I started thinking about showing at the Met, I was thinking of the opera hall itself. I didn’t want the show or the work to feel cut off from the rest of the house or from the experience of being there as an opera-goer. Also, from a practical standpoint, I had made a lot of work, and when I visited the gallery I realized that it wasn’t big enough.
MILLER: Had you seen The Ring cycle performed before, or were you familiar with the story?
PEYTON: I had never seen or heard The Ring before. When I was younger, I read everything I could about King Ludwig of Bavaria. It isn’t possible to know him without knowing something about Richard Wagner. Ludwig loved Wagner and his music above all things. Amazingly, in one of their pink silk-lined cases, the Met has a jeweled baton that Ludwig had made for Wagner, and gave to him on the occasion of the opening of his opera Parsifal!
MILLER: Your series focuses on the characters and the story in Die Walküre, the second cycle of The Ring. What was it about this story that struck you?
PEYTON: At first I didn’t really get that my show would coincide with the Met’s performance of Die Walküre. Initially, I was making work about all of the operas and Wagner in general, but found myself doing a lot more with this cycle in particular. So much happens; the story is incredibly dramatic, not to mention scandalous.
A brother and sister, separated when they were young, by chance find each other and fall in love and plan to run away, even though they know that they are siblings. Their father thinks that it’s fine for them to be in love, but his wife insists that the union is no good, telling her husband: if you aren’t going to find fault with a brother and a sister in love, at least have some scruples that the sister is already married! The story is so unexpected in a way, because it addresses the lengths people are willing to go for love and hate and revenge.
Beyond the story there is something in the music that speaks so purely of being human. It’s beyond language, just pure feeling. That’s what really amazed me. I like how operas reduce human feeling into something transcendent and timeless, something everyone can feel.
MILLER: When painting portraits of musicians—Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, etc.—does their music inform the work? Do you listen to it while you’re painting?
PEYTON: Yes, it’s a lot about their music. Sometimes I’m listening to the person I’m painting, and sometimes not. With this I was listening to The Ring a lot, as well as Tristan and Isolde. With the last painting, I was listening to a Justin Bieber song called “Kiss and Tell” over and over.