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Peter Halley - Biography and Legacy

American Abstract Artist

Born: September 24, 1953 - New York, NY
Movements and Styles:
Installation Art

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."

Mature Period

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."

Late Period

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."

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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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