American Abstract Artist
New York, NY
Summary of Peter Halley
Toward the end of the modernist era, amongst the electrical landscape of 1980s New York City, Peter Halley liberated the square from its prior minimalist stage and set it on fire for a new generation. Using geometry to express the physical and psychological aspects of contemporary urban space in the burgeoning digital age, his dynamic and radically colored paintings introduced a bold new abstraction. On Halley's flattened canvas planes, or integrated seamlessly into architectural spaces, shapes become elevated from mere form to conjure the prisons, cells, conduits, and apartment blocks of 21st-century life, connecting us as viewers to the realities of our isolated modular existence.
- Although Halley found early inspiration in Minimalism and Color Field Painting, his work has evolved the simple presentation of visual geometry beyond mere form by giving it underlying conceptual meaning.
- Halley is considered an important member of Neo-Geo, which stands for Neo-Geometric Conceptualism. The term is used to describe artists of his time who stood to criticize the mechanization and commercialism of the modern world in bold new ways.
- For his prefab geometries, Halley employs progressive and electrifying color, such as acid bright Day Glo, in jarring combinations and technologically advanced materials, such as Roll a Tex, to authentically represent our modern age.
- Halley is also known for his critical writings on the post modern world and our communal relationship to the social structures in which we dwell, written works that mirror in content the underlying messages of his paintings.
Progression of Art
The Prison of History
An oppressive grey wall draws our eye in to the scene, with barely visible brickwork glinting slightly in dim light. In its center is a small window covered by black prison bars, closed off by darkness, shutting out any connection with the world beyond. Black shadows close in, like a boundary around the wall, further emphasizing the grim claustrophobia.
This painting typifies Halley's early career tableau, in which he painted a series of stifling brick walls in dark colors with barred windows resembling those of a prison cell. Halley was fascinated by the urban environment that equally closed in all around him in New York and the modular structures of living that dominated the cityscape. These early paintings mimic the isolated and oppressive nature of his own living situation, where windows look out onto the urban environment rather than green, or nature-filled space.
Yet the visual language he adopted here was also a play on the modernist geometries of Minimalist art, echoing the same order and refinement of abstract artists such as Agnes Martin and Barnett Newman, who deliberately reduced and distilled their shapes and colors into the sparest and simplest forms. In contrast to these artists, Halley brings references to figuration back into his gridded composition, arranging his panels into a pictorial image, hinting at the familiar and enforcing connection with the viewer.
He deliberately chose to paint prison cells during this time to highlight the incarcerating limitations of modernist art, suggesting reducing art to its simplest of forms was a form of imprisonment that prevented it from being free, and that modernist artists had effectively reached the 'endgame,' or the end of the line, with nowhere left to go. He wrote, "The idealist square becomes the prison. Geometry is revealed as confinement." This cynical critique of modernism became a defining feature of Halley's art and informed new attitudes towards abstraction for generations to come, as seen in the mock-Minimalist installations of Damien Hirst and the dystopic sculptures of Rachel Whiteread. Art historian and writer Morgan Falconer observed, "Peter Halley is looking at geometric abstraction with very new eyes."
Acrylic on Canvas
Prison & Cell with Smokestack & Conduit
Two fluorescent squares of yellow emerge with radiant light from a deep grey backdrop, humming with electric energy. Each square resembles a living space, revealed by the sparest additions; on the left, a row of bars suggests the window of a prison cell, while on the right a small chimney peeks out, turning the square into a house. An underground conduit connects the two buildings, suggesting an exchange of power.
Halley made this work during a transitional time when he was moving beyond earlier paintings of brick walls toward a more radical language of coded signs and symbols. Still finding inspiration from his confined living situation in New York City, the simplified, boxed forms suggest modular, isolated habitats. Here he deliberately combined what he calls a "sickly" yellow with somber shades of grey and black to create a bleak, existential mood inspired by the writings of Samuel Beckett. The cable running between the two buildings was significant for Halley, as he explains, "In Cell with Smokestack and Conduit I imagined that the conduits were carrying something that illuminated the cells, a kind of Duchampian illuminating gas which was then emitted from the smokestack."
In other similar works Halley experimented with illuminating the underground cable, but here he deliberately left it dark, suggesting our underlying urban connection via more sinister or destructive forces. He writes, "I wanted to see what would happen if I put the prison and the cell with smokestack together, connected by a conduit that's no longer illuminated but rather dark. This painting was a particularly bleak picture of two different isolated spaces linked inextricably together."
Halley's exploration of ambient light in separate, isolated, or imprisoned units is now recognized as a sort of pre-commentary on digital and Internet technology's contribution to driving humans further apart. As writer Max Lankin points out, "(His paintings) emerged in the era's moment of cool irony, both a postmodernist critique of geometric abstraction and an indictment of how we've arranged ourselves in the post-industrialist West, allowing instant connection to replace the messier human kind."
Day-Glo Acrylic and Acrylic on Canvas
Two Cells with Circulating Conduit
Two black squares emerge from an acid bright backdrop enveloped electric, ambient light. Joining them are two conduits in electric shades of blue and green. This work continued the evolution of Halley's signature style, featuring simplified squares and rectangles of color by presenting the geometric forms as "cells" or "units" - a distinct addition to his own coded language suggesting living spaces combined by underlying exchanges of energy.
Early works in this period had a bleak, existential quality, but Halley was gradually moving towards the use of brighter colors and a more optimistic outlook by the mid-1980s. This reflected his changing circumstances as his art became more widely recognized and appreciated and he began to feel more connected to the lively, thriving art scene in and around New York's East Village. He commented, "In these paintings of '86, the vocabulary became very pop, aggressive, and much more animated. The optimism and excitement of that work definitely reflected the dynamism I felt about being involved in the scene oriented around the galleries in the East Village. I felt that my life was becoming much more pop. I began to identify with the cell as a transformer of cultural processes of which I was a part, and not just an endpoint."
Halley also attached a wider cultural meaning to works such as this one, creating a critical commentary on the insular and self-perpetuating nature of twentieth century art following the rise of modernism. He observed, "Psychologically, it was about a sense of catharsis and a transformation of something very bleak into something that had more of a sense of movement. Even though it was still confining, it was more optimistic. It also allowed me to represent pictorially the sense of closure and self-referentiality that I was ascribing to fate 20th century culture in general."
Day-Glo Acrylic and Acrylic on Canvas
A Monstrous Paradox
In this four-panel artwork, intersecting geometric shapes mirror and repeat one another in a dizzying array of color and light. Unusual, kitschy colors rub up against one another, creating a discordant, Op Art effect.
Halley deliberately mirrors the language of Color Field artists including Barnett Newman and Frank Stella in works such as this one, emulating their careful balance of geometric shapes and striking slabs of color. But in contrast to the unemotional language of Minimalism, Halley deliberately references the living and breathing urban environment, likening his "cells" to living spaces connected by cables of electricity. This work was one of many that introduced a bold experimentation with color, combining the synthetic brightness of Day-Glo acrylic with more traditional, subdued tones. The artist writes, "I began to juxtapose and intermix the Day-Glo colors that I had always used with other kinds of traditional colors to see what would happen. I wanted to see, if by operating in a non-didactic manner, I could create a space and light that was more intense than that which I had created by sticking to a didactic program."
Halley also applied the Roll-a-Tex, a paint medium which lends a grainy, sand-like texture to the surface, to select panels. In doing so, he likened his act of painting to that of a common house painter or decorator rather than an elevated "artiste," thereby parodying the pretentions of modernist art. Writer Julia Felsenthal observed this interplay between wry humor and electro color combination when writing, "His paintings resemble LSD-fueled abstractions, or possibly cartoonishly bright, invitingly tactile corporate flow charts."
Day-Glo Acrylic, Acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on Canvas
Peter Halley at Stuart Shave/Modern Art
In this installation at Stuart Shave/Modern Art Gallery in London Halley placed a large, iridescent painting onto a wallpapered backdrop printed with a design resembling the complex networks of a computer chip. The wallpaper design repeated elements from the painting as if running on a perpetual digital loop. It also tied the painting in with the box-like surrounding architecture, creating an immersive continuity of pattern and shape. Color plays a vital role in this installation - the acid bright tones in the painting lend it the quality of an electric generator that seems to hum with pulsating energy, while yellow and pink carry the same life force across the gallery walls.
Curator and writer Jo Melvin notes the mind-altering effects of Halley's intense color patterns, observing, "In Peter Halley's paintings colors clash and conjoin to create a dizzying sensation. At times the optical effect created by the Day-Glo's luminosity is so jarring that the paintings almost hurt the eye. He celebrates effects such as the plethora of color in neon signs, internet surfing, and our image-saturated media world."
She also observes the inherent contradiction of his practice, which on the one hand seems to celebrate the digital world, yet emphasize the physicality of the painted object, noting, "The three-dimensional quality of Halley's work asserts the object status of the paintings in a way that photographic reproduction simply cannot represent."
Since the late 1990s Halley has consistently expanded beyond canvas to explore his trademark motifs of grids, squares, and lines in a range of new contexts, including sculpture and site-specific installations. Moving beyond the confines of the two-dimensional has allowed Halley to extend the circuitry and flow of his earlier paintings onto a much larger scale, mirroring the way that the ever present flux of digital data infiltrates and surrounds our daily lives.
In the Disjecta Contemporary Arts Center, Portland, Halley covered the walls with a prison-patterned wallpaper, made from a series of purple bar motifs floating across a mint green backdrop. Deliberately playing with the Minimalist notion of difference and repetition here, he stretched, squashed, and upturned his trademark three-rung bar design into a series of experimental variations.
Since the late 1990s Halley has been producing wallpaper patterns based on the geometric designs of his earlier paintings. Prison bars have been a recurring motif that symbolize the confinements and restrictions of contemporary urban living, but they also represent the limitations of geometric, Modernist art, poking fun at the spiritual sanctity artists such as Mark Rothko and Donald Judd placed on their refined minimalist language. The oppressive nature of these prison bars on repeat across three gallery walls deliberately creates a sense of oppressive claustrophobia, as writer Richard Speer points out, "Stacked one upon one another like an infinitude of tiger cages, the prisons exert a collective intimidation that verges on the sadistic."
The immersive and all-encompassing circuitry of Halley's wallpaper motifs also reflect how infiltrated technology has become within our daily lives, surrounding almost every aspect of the contemporary urban experience. Speer highlights this dramatic leap from two-dimensional painting to three-dimensional space in Halley's practice, observing, "Whereas Halley's acrylic paintings present discrete diagrams of contemporary experience, Prison expands into vaulting architectural space, rendering the exhibition hall itself a life-sized simulacrum indistinguishable from reality."
Wallpaper Design, Installation Detail
Biography of Peter Halley
Peter Halley was born in New York in 1953 and grew up in midtown Manhattan. Raised in a 1940s apartment building that was sixteen stories high, Halley remembers feeling completely boxed in by the urban environment, commenting, "The apartment was very tiny and whatever window you looked out of, you just saw brick walls and other windows. There was a sense of claustrophobia, without any sky or variation, which has really stuck with me."
The artist's father, Rudolph Halley, was a high-profile attorney who became a prominent public figure, particularly after prosecuting the much-publicized Keafauver senate hearings in the early 1950s. Sadly, Rudolph died when Halley was just three years old, but he left an indelible impression on his young son. As Halley remembers, "Since my father died early and was sort of an idealized figure for me, it was easy to see in his work a kind of model for how one could conduct a professional life, in terms of wanting to contribute something and make an impact." For the remainder of his childhood Halley was raised by his mother, Janice Halley, a nurse.
As a young boy Halley attended Hunter College Elementary School, a traditional grammar school where he learned French, Latin, math, and geography. He was studious and bright, and recalls being drawn to artistic subjects from a young age, enjoying drawing and creating in his spare time. Growing up in New York, Halley was surrounded by the heroic intellectualism and geometric abstraction of The New York School including Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt, noting, "It was very much a part of my cultural environment."
Early Training and Work
After leaving school Halley went on to the Phillips Academy prep school in Andover, which was known for its innovative arts program. It was a formative time for the young and ambitious Halley, who described the institution's meritocratic focus on achievement as "extraordinary." At Phillips Halley was taught a formalist, Bauhaus approach to making art as influenced by Josef Albers, observing, "This course of study emphasized my talents in design, color, and general abstract formal problem-solving."
Halley also became a regular visitor to the nearby Addison Gallery of American Art, where he saw works by Winslow Homer, Jackson Pollock, and Edward Hopper. Historical references to the American traditions of large scale, heroic painting were also tied in with Halley's course program and they left a lasting impression. Socio-political influences that helped shape Halley's leaning towards liberal modernism during this time came from reading the literature of Albert Camus and E.E. Cummings, while he was drawn to the absurdist, anti-establishment attitudes of the Yippies.
In the early 1970s Halley moved on to Yale University, hoping to major in art. But after two years of studying at Yale, Halley was deeply unhappy with what he called a "from-the-figure" tradition to teaching, which he found too stifling for his radical outlook. Instead of continuing, he took a hiatus in New Orleans. There, he spent much time alone, reading and expanding his understanding of art history and soaking up the culture of New Orleans. A year later Halley returned to Yale hoping to finish his degree, but after an unsuccessful portfolio review, he was refused an art major. Instead of being discouraged by this setback, Halley focused on art history, writing his thesis on the art of Henri Matisse, and graduating in 1975. But he was still confident in his abilities as an artist, noting, "One strength I've always had is not really having to depend very much on external approbation as an artist. I always have had confidence that I was pursuing what I wanted to pursue, and I didn't have much choice in the matter."
In 1976 Halley enrolled in the newly developed MFA program at the University of New Orleans. Visually and culturally, New Orleans was markedly different from his urbanized upbringing and many of his friends lived in the clean-living suburbs, which were a complete culture shock for Halley. He remembers, "I was a city kid, so the Sun Belt 'burbs felt like a prefab Martian colony - modular and freakishly clean." Although Halley's art during this time was predominantly focused on painting and heavily influenced by Pablo Picasso's geometric work from the 1920s, he was inadvertently moving closer to the abstract, formalist language that would mark his mature work. He noted, "My work became more pictorial - there was a sense of a frontal horizontal plane in which geometric things were piled."
Halley graduated from New Orleans in 1978 and spent some time travelling around Central America, Mexico, Europe, and North Africa before finally returning to his New York hometown in 1980. Creative culture was flourishing in the city during this time and Halley had been attracted back by the rise of New Wave music from burgeoning bands such as Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Ramones. He moved into a loft on East 7th Street in the East Village, in the same apartment block as Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
Despite the thriving art scene, Halley often found himself completely alone, but these periods of intense solitude had a profound impact on his way of thinking about art. Looking back, he recalls, "When I first came to New York, I felt the isolation of living in an apartment - it was a singular, individual existence. I imagined being in a box stacked up with many other boxes." His lifelong familiarity with geometric urban space came to shape a new body of paintings depicting oppressive, closed brick walls, which conveyed the claustrophobia of living in New York's grid and what he called the "geometricization of space that pervaded the 20th century." Building on this series of brick walls, Halley began to slowly abstract his own pictorial language, as influenced by the flattened purity of Minimalism and Color Field Painting. He wrote, "Even though I wanted to continue to create pictorial things - more or less paintings - I wanted to find a much more radical means with which to paint these confining walled-up spaces."
One way of breaking apart the flat picture plane was to introduce the dimpled, kitsch surface of Roll-a-Tex into parts of his paintings. He also began to abstract rectangle or square brick shapes into slabs of bright color, as influenced by artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. But in contrast to their pure, spiritual abstraction, Halley's geometric language was closer to Pop, echoing the electrifyingly bright shapes and colors of the urban environment. He likened his designs to prisons, cells, conduits, and apartment blocks.
In 1982, Halley married social worker Caroline Churchill Stewart, and the pair would go on to have two children. A confident and articulate young man, Halley was actively involved with the East Village art scene in New York as a series of new gallery spaces sprang up around him that included Monument, Cash/Newhouse, and Nature Morte. In 1983, he curated the exhibition Science Fiction at the John Weber Gallery, including art works by artists associated with The Pictures Generation such as Ross Bleckner, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman, allowing him to connect with some of New York's most adventurous talents.
Various solo exhibitions for Halley followed and by the late 1980s he had hit his stride, earning a reputation as a leading member of the Neo-Geo movement along with Ashley Bickerton, Jeff Koons, and Meyer Vaisman. Described by the media as "The Hot Four," these artists were united by their mutual interest in distorting elements from the real world with a stylized, geometric, or "geo" language, usually lifted from popular culture. They were engaged in a critique of the regulation of space through these abstract aesthetics. Halley's paintings typified this new era in art with their clean, acid bright forms linking back to highways, prisons, or circuit boards.
Halley remembers, "It really was an extraordinary moment in my life because, for the first time, I was meeting people who basically saw society and culture and issues to do with art as I did. I was becoming part of a stimulating and confirming intellectual community for the first time."
As his art began garnering national media coverage, Halley kept the details of his personal life completely private, rarely discussing it in interviews, even following the breakdown of his first marriage. He also received the attention surrounding his art reluctantly, preferring to remain somewhat at a distance, noting, "It was an interesting experience, but I felt detached and was never really interested in buying into it... on some level, I refused fame."
Writing became an important facet of Halley's practice in the late 1980s, allowing him to further explore ideas related to the Post Structuralist theories of Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard. He published a series of essays on modernism, postmodernism, and the digital revolution, developing ideas around the individual's relationship to larger social structures, concepts that would feed back into the modular structures of his paintings. Likening his work of the period with the uncertainties of the postmodern era, he wrote, "I decided that for me modernism was really about skepticism, doubt, and questioning. Things that we now say are part of a postmodern sensibility."
In 1996, Halley co-founded the iconic Index Magazine with Bob Nickas, continuing to publish the periodical until 2005. The magazine focused on all areas of the arts, interviewing prominent and emergent figures from music, film, art, and fashion. Halley also took on various teaching posts throughout the 1990s and from 2002-2011 became director of graduate studies at Yale. Working at Yale in such a high-profile position was a hugely inspiring period for him, and he called teaching "a real high ... it takes you outside yourself."
Halley's practice diversified into several new arenas throughout the 1990s, including three-dimensional, architectural, and site-specific practices, but he retained the same language of geometric, modular cells and units of his earlier work. He has also continued to respond to the changing face of technology following the digital revolution, as his paintings have evolved to include ever more adventurous colors and textures that invest auras of electric light and resonant ambience.
Today Halley is married to his second wife, the painter Ann Craven, and he runs a studio in New York with several assistants. Shifting from working alone in a hermetic, insular manner to being part of a lively group situation has allowed Halley to expand his practice in unprecedented ways, which he sees as a hugely positive change. He described his setup in a recent interview, observing, "The atmosphere in the studio has also gotten very pop. I work with three or four extremely talented younger artists, and I'll get ideas from them about specific projects. There are various kinds of input from them, that I find to be exciting feedback."
The Legacy of Peter Halley
While in many ways Halley's ironic, "endgame" approach to geometric abstraction throughout the 1980s and 1990s marked the end of the modernist era, Halley also opened new ways of thinking about the role of geometry in art beyond the reductive simplicity of Minimalism, allowing new elements of representation to slowly creep back in.
Since the late 1990s and early 2000s a new wave of painters has adopted geometric languages in a variety of materials that are more eclectic, diverse, and pluralistic than their modernist counterparts. Some invest subtlety and mystery into the modernist sphere, such as German painter Tomma Abts, who explores an enigmatic language of angular forms that hint at shallow space with strange, eerie lighting and unusual, vintage colors. Or, British artist Vicken Parsons, whose monochromatic painterly geometry hovers between flat shapes and the invocation of architecture.
Contemporary artists who have mirrored Halley's ability to connect abstracted, ordered forms with the real, industrialized or digital world include British artist Damien Hirst, whose gridded spot paintings and Pharmacy installations connect ordered Minimalism with the patterns of everyday life, and German artist Manfred Pernice, whose mock-architectural arrangements are made from deliberately lo-fi materials. British sculptor Rachel Whiteread also invokes rigid, minimal sculptures which are cast from the interiors of domestic objects or spaces, echoing the same hollow or uneasy ambience of Halley's paintings, while British installation artist Liam Gillick's strikingly colorful structural arrangements explore how ideological systems of control affect our daily existence.
Others have further developed Halley's systematic visual language, such as the American painter Jonathan Lasker, whose ordered, abstract paintings are filled with repetitive patterns and motifs. Similarly, Scottish painter Callum Innes evolves the interplay between system and chance, pouring turpentine onto rectangular or square passages of paint to strip it away in painterly rivulets, a process he calls "un-painting."