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Peter Halley Photo

Peter Halley

American Abstract Artist

Born: September 24, 1953 - New York, NY
Movements and Styles:
Installation Art
"Digital communication - despite all of the possibilities it presents - is not synonymous with meaningful contact."
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Peter Halley
"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."
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Peter Halley
"Contemporary art fundamentally addresses the globalist elite. It's a misconception that contemporary art has - or should have - some universal power of communication. In reality, its visual lexicon is arcane and intentionally opaque. Its ownership is reserved for the very wealthy."
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Peter Halley
"The entire institution of contemporary art is irrelevant to the disenfranchised."
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Peter Halley
"My paintings usually have a clear figure-ground relationship - the background is always a flat colored plane, and the prisons and cells are discrete units with a distinct texture."
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Peter Halley
"Honestly, to me, there is no such thing as pure abstraction. To my way of thinking, every form has multiple referents. The language of my paintings is derived from twentieth-century abstraction because I think that it also had referents in the industrial landscape."
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Peter Halley
"I began using Day-Glo color as a sort of joke with myself. It really felt like slapstick, this put-down of elegant abstraction."
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Peter Halley
"We called the cultural bluff on the issue of simulation. Neo-expressionism was a kind of simulation of pre-war modernism, a Disneyland version of the School of Paris, made for shopping malls. I think by drawing attention to this whole idea of simulation and questioning influence, we presented a conscious alternative to neo-expressionism."
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Peter Halley
"In my early years in New York, I developed the intuition that one's psychic life was inseparable from one's social identity. This issue is of paramount importance to my work."
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Peter Halley
"What really specifically interests me is that the use of color can be transgressive. I find it exciting if I can make some awkward color or combination of colors work."
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Peter Halley
"I strongly believe in making art that can be looked at quickly. We live in a society of informational and cultural overload. The idea of a Cezanne, for example, which you can study for hours and various nuances are revealed, seems very out of touch at least with my own psychic life. I want to make something explosive and immediate. And hopefully explosive and immediate each time you go by and take a quick look at it."
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Peter Halley
"People have always said my work is both seductive and assaulting. That balance between drawing you in and pushing you back has always resonated with me."
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Peter Halley
"About 15 years ago, I began to notice that artists were using color more freely and older people seemed more responsive to it, and I swear to God that it's because of the iPhone. We've become so used to interacting with this colorful iPhone world."
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Peter Halley
"I'm of the opinion that Instagram has been great for the art world because it's been very democratizing. I know artists whose work has gotten around because someone saw it on Instagram. Another example is the art fairs. You never used to know what was going on at Miami Basel unless you got a plane ticket and an expensive hotel room, and now you can just scroll through the whole thing. It's made a big difference."
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Peter Halley
"... digital natives (people 30 to 40) seem really comfortable with my work, because both in color and imagery, it seems to speak to how they assume the world is, in terms of circuitry, diagrammatic images, and highly keyed color."
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Peter Halley

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.

Biography of Peter Halley

Peter Halley Photo

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."

Important Art by Peter Halley

The Prison of History (1981)

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."

Prison & Cell with Smokestack & Conduit (1985)

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."

Two Cells with Circulating Conduit (1986)

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."

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Peter Halley
Influenced by Artist
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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper

"Peter Halley Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
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First published on 29 Jun 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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