The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in the Cheever-esque village of Ridgefield, CT, is one of the rare non-collecting art institutions in New England. Like the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Real Art Ways in Hartford, and Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, the Aldrich Museum exists to support new art, a place where living artists can push the boundaries of art and audiences can see the art of the future today. As often as not, exhibitions at the Aldrich challenge the viewer to expand their sense of what art can be, not only with exhibitions but also with installations of video and audio environments.
The unusual thing about the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is that it started life in 1964 as a place to show the collection of founder Larry Aldrich, a successful New York dress designer and art collector. In 1981, however, the Aldrich took the daring step of selling off (de-accessioning being the polite term of art) Mr. Aldrich’s collection in order to concentrate on providing a venue for the new. In 2004, the museum moved from a 19th century building that over the years had housed a grocery store and a Christian Science Church to a new 25,000 facility next door designed specifically for the presentation of art.
At any given time, the Aldrich has several different exhibitions on view, so you never know what you might see there. This summer, the featured attraction is Elizabeth Peyton: Portrait of an Artist (through November 18), an exhibition of some 50 portrait photographs by a painter best known for her small, colorfully romantic portraits of her artist friends, musicians, designers, and celebrities. In some ways, the Peyton show is a bit conservative for the Aldrich, yet it is the deceptively simple, even old-fashion nature of Elizabeth Peyton’s art that recommends her to view. As one of the art stars of the 1990s, Peyton helped make portraits cool again. Her photographs are like field notes for her paintings.
Born in Danbury, CT, in 1965, Elizabeth Peyton graduated from the School of Visual Art in New York in 1987 and had her coming out as an artist in 1993 when her dealer Gavin Brown installed her little portraits of famous people in a room in the Chelsea Hotel and invited the New York art world to see them. Since that time, Peyton has been one of the darlings of the New York art demimonde, creating charming, urbane little paintings of fey young men and soulful young women.
The associations usually made for Peyton’s portraits are to the celebrity portraits of Andy Warhol and the artist portraits of Alex Katz, but in their modesty and engagement with their subject (Warhol was all about celebrity; Katz all about style) Peyton’s paintings always seemed to me closer in look and feel to the portraits of Alice Neel and the figures of Lois Dodd. Her work gets away with a sincerity that is rare in the ironic world of contemporary art. The small, modest and sincere, Peyton’s portraits can command big prices. A painting of the late John Lennon sold not long ago for $800,000.
Elizabeth Peyton: Portrait of the Artist is the result of Peyton’s winning the 2006 Larry Aldrich Award, which earns the recipient $25,000 and a solo show. For Peyton’s solo show, the Aldrich chose to “present the first exhibition to focus exclusively on her photographic work, specifically the intimate portraits she has taken of friends and colleagues in the creative arena.”
In a July 11 New York Times review of the Peyton photo show, critic Karen Rosenberg described her aesthetic as “casual, even amateurish” and noted that the photographs tend to be “under-or overexposed, badly composed and out of focus.” But that misses the point. Technical skill has not been valued in contemporary art for several generations. Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings and photographs are about sensibility. She has her finger on the fluttering pulse of our neurasthenic age. That’s why she matters.
If you need other reasons to visit the Aldrich Museum this summer, the museum is also featuring Painting the Glass House: Artists Revisit Modern Architecture (through July 27), Gary Panter: Daydream Trap (through August 31), Ester Partegas: The Invisible, an illuminated site-specific awning on the museum?s old building, (through August 10), and will be mounting Peggy Preheim: Little Black Book, drawings and sculptural assemblages, (opening August 10), and The Bird Collector, a exhibition celebrating Ridgefield’s 300th anniversary and honoring the work of a local taxidermist (July 20 to September 7). Can’t wait to see what that’s all about.
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main St., Ridgefield CT, 203-438-0198.