With Ab-Ex, Minimalism and Pop Art embedded in his dna, New York painter Peter Halley began in the early 1980s, as part of the Neo-Geo generation, to create flat, tactile paintings playing on modernist pictorial rules. Also a prescient and influential writer, and the mastermind behind cult indie magazine INDEX, Halley transforms the language of geometric abstraction into a commentary on our post-industrial society, with an acute concern for surveillance, isolation, and how contemporary life is wired.
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen: We just got to New York today. It’s kind of interesting to think of our trip as a preparation for this conversation. First we saw the Albert Oehlen exhibition in Cleveland, then this morning we arrived and met Michael Krebber, and now here we are. It’s like time travel back to painting of the 1980s! So to start this conversation, let’s talk about the upcoming exhibition at Stuart Shave Modern Art in London opening at the end of January, It’s focused on work from the ‘80s, right?
Peter Halley: Yes, they’ve managed to gather together a really strong group of paintings. It’s exciting for me to show them together in London. Creative life is full of happenstance—and, strangely, those paintings are probably better known in London than they are in New York. In 1987, Charles Saatchi was busy buying up work by the new generation of artists in New York as fast as possible—people like myself, Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach. He did a big exhibition of this new art from New York at the public gallery that he had just opened in London. And even though he turned around and sold the work of all the artists a short time later, it seems that every young artist in London saw the show—it certainly seems to have had an influence on the YBA generation. So for me, it’s particularly meaningful to bring work from those years back to London thirty years later.
That leads us to something interesting: the dynamic relationship between American and European painting. For instance, we learned from Oehlen that in the ‘80s, he really didn’t look at your work, but over time, his perspective changed, and he became interested. At a certain point, a dialogue starts between Europe and America, which had previously been kind of hermetic scenes. What was your relationship with European painting at that time?
I’ve always thought that the years around 1980 marked what I call “the return of Europe,” embodied in exhibitions like “A New Spirit of Painting” in London and “Zeitgeist” in Berlin. My idea is that it took until 1980 for Europe to fully recover from the war and regain the means and ambition to be the leading power in contemporary culture. With that new ambition came a resurgence of the European values inherent in European painting. Everybody started looking at Picasso and Expressionism again. There was this overall rediscovery of 20th-century pre-war European art.
When Polke started making abstract art after the war, he looked back at Western history as something that was charged, even as something you’d want to forget. Were you directly attaching yourself to some kind of neo-avant-garde American modernism?
My story is a little different. I started making art at the beginning of the ‘70s, when Conceptualism and Installation Art were really creating a transformation in Western culture. So, in my twenties, I had to come to terms with the ideas those movements represented. I found I was inclined to making two-dimensional images, not sculpture in real space—and I realized that I liked to make things myself as opposed to sending work out to be fabricated. I think of those two predilections as a priori elements in my work.
And your response to previous American art?
I’m from New York, so Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop Art really were a part of my personal history. As a teenager, around 1970, I saw both the Barnett Newman and the Frank Stella retrospectives at MoMA. I even grew up on the same street where Warhol had his first Factory. So New York art from that era was in my bloodstream right from the start. Later in the ‘70s, I moved to New Orleans to get away from that crazy, industrial, hyperactive New York environment. But I returned in 1980, and along with my new interest in the city as a cultural phenomenon, I began to proactively embrace Pop and Minimalism as models.
And what other artists interested you at the time?
I also knew about the Pictures Generation artists. I really responded to the work of Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger and Louise Lawler. But I myself wasn’t particularly interested in pursuing media critique. When Richard Prince re-photographed the Marlboro Man cigarette ads, pointing out this manipulative use of mass media, I felt like he was telling me something I already knew. To me, it was more interesting to engage in a critique of what I like to call the “managerial class,” which employs the language of geometry, urban planning, architecture, technology, etc. By the early ‘80s, transforming the language of geometric abstraction into a vocabulary of prisons and isolated cells seemed like a more challenging direction to me. In this regard, I parted company with most of my contemporaries.
It’s a critique of modernism as well.
Oh, yes. At the same time I began to ask myself—why did geometric abstraction suddenly emerge as an art practice at the beginning of the 20th century? I linked it to the advent of a technologically governed, rationalized society in which movement and communication were controlled by predetermined geometric pathways, as Foucault described it. In the 1920s, that kind of space was seen as an utopian ideal. By the 1980s, it had become a dystopian, constraining reality.
This led to a several strong essays you wrote at the time, in which you talk about how the modern environment functions like an abstraction. It seems that you then took this observation, this claim, and adopted it as a painterly rule, in a way.
Yes, my paintings pictorialize this idea. They are all landscape views seen from the side, as in an architectural section. I’m picturing an abstract landscape space populated by prisons, cells, and the conduits that connect them. The paintings also play on pictorial rules derived from modernism. They have to be flat, almost non-illusionistic, and they have to emphasize tactile signifiers as opposed to pictorial signifiers. From the start, the thing that interested me the most was how the cells and prisons were connected or not connected. At the same, I came to believe—and still do—that this kind of geometry is the way that contemporary life is wired, with predetermined pathways connecting discrete isolated spaces or containers, whether you call that a computer terminal, an apartment, or a car. Uncontrolled movement and communication have largely disappeared. We are isolated physically and only connected by technology.
When you started showing your work in the ‘80s, you were already writing. How did that relationship work? We learned from Liam Gillick, who arrived in New York a little later, that you were really a role model within your generation of artists, propelling this idea of artistic production combined with commentary.
For me, there’s no bigger compliment.
Even recently, I had some conversations with artist friends in Zurich, and so many of them told us how influential your writing has been to them. How did this all come about? What were the first distribution channels, the first magazines you wrote for?
When I first came to New York, a friend introduced me to Jeffrey Deitch, who was very active as an art critic at the time. He had just written an essay on Jon Borofsky for Art in America. After I met Jeffrey, I wrote him a note about his essay, and he wrote back saying, more or less, “Peter, you should write.” So I thought I’d give it a try. I wrote this essay, “Beat, Minimalism, New Wave and Robert Smithson,” which in a funny way is intensely autobiographical, and submitted it to all the art magazines. I don’t think anybody actually read it except for an extraordinary man named Richard Martin, who was the editor of Arts Magazine and later founded the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum. Richard read everything that came in. I got a letter back saying, “We’re going to publish it next month.” From that point on, he was basically willing to publish whatever I wrote. I still feel grateful to him.
Later on, in 2005, you did an interview with Sturtevant for INDEX magazine in which she spoke about her notion of “cybernetic imposition.” You also wrote extensively about the new digital reality. You were both really pioneers in reflecting on this new digital situation—this “utopian moment,” as you once called it.
I wrote that in 2000. I was impressed with the decline in the importance of the individual authorial voice and the rise of creative collaboration that accompanied the early years of the Internet. But I actually wrote that it would be a short utopian moment—I knew it wouldn’t last very long (laughs). I was, and still am, concerned about the dominance of digital technologies in our lives. I take a Foucauldian position towards digital technology, believing that it completely controls and restricts the way we communicate and interact. We have come to obey the rules in a way that’s very new.
It’s a modern metaphor for a new prison, in a way.
Oh yes, that’s where the writings of Jean Baudrillard come in. He said that this imprisonment is made possible through strategies of seduction. Facebook is a perfect example of that.
Speaking of that, it’s very interesting to follow your account on Instagram.
Oh yeah, I love to talk about it. (laughs) If I understand it correctly, Instagram claims rights to use all the pictures that people post. Since I don’t want to give them my pictures, I thought I’d give them Google’s pictures—specifically, satellite photographs from Google Earth. I’m very interested in surveillance, and those satellite photos began as a military surveillance technology. So it sort of amuses me to post Google’s satellite photos on Instagram, so that Instagram can then own the Google satellite photos. It’s my own way of saying something about the rather deceptive tactics they use to gather information.
Have you ever used these pictures as the starting point to make an image, or even as a painting methodology?
No, actually, just the opposite. My visual work always has something to do with maps and plans—views seen from above—and as long as I can remember, I’ve been very interested in satellite photography. Until the ‘90s, satellite imagery was top secret, so when Google started offering these photos online, I was absolutely amazed. But I don’t actually use them in my visual work—it’s just a parallel investigation.
So you don’t directly draw from this material in your work?
I like to emphasize that the basis of my work is purely idealistic. I like to make work that’s visually constructed in the human mind—it’s not based on anything I see. Yes, I’ll make a painting showing a structure in a space, but it’s not about a structure I’m looking at. It doesn’t show a specific building—it shows a diagram of a building, a model of a building. I’m trying to focus on the basic structural attributes of a system, not specific visual examples. To me, that’s very important. Modern production is based on fabricating individual objects from a model. As Baudrillard put it, in a post-industrial digitally based society, the model always precedes reality.
Let’s speak about your technique, which is so specific to your paintings. How do you actually work? What kind of paints do you use? What kind of canvas?
I grew up in an era in which people were saying that painting was dead, an outmoded technology or cultural form. But of course, it didn’t die, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why not. In my view, it’s still around because, unlike a photo-mechanical picture, a painting is both an image and a tactile experience at the same time. When we really love a painting, it has as much to do with its tactile quality as with the image itself. So I guess the reason I’m a painter and not a photographer or anything else is that I’m naturally attracted to that sense of tactility, and I like making things that are tactile. Then, when I started out in New York in the early ‘80s, I really wanted to make anti-paintings, in the sense that I was trying to get rid of everything arty or pretentious. I started using this cheap, commercial, textural additive called Roll-a-Tex to build up the surfaces of the prisons and cells—partly to give them an architectural quality, and partly as a parody of the kind of beautiful texture that people admire in oil paintings. Then I began to use fluorescent Day-Glo paint, both because it created a technological glow that doesn’t feel like natural light and because it wasn’t part of the art historical vocabulary. My paintings certainly weren’t anti-painting in any absolute sense, but they were still pretty punk.
I really enjoyed your essay “Notes on the Paintings” from 1982, because there you describe the stucco texture as being reminiscent of motel ceilings. This really introduces architecture as a presence in your work. I’m very curious about your relationship to postmodern architecture.
Well, I’ve really been deeply interested in architecture for as long as I can remember. I read Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture when I was like twenty years old, so I really grew up with those touchstones of postmodernism. A few years ago, the Victoria and Albert Museum did a multi-disciplinary show on postmodernism, bringing together Venturi, Ettore Sottsass, the Talking Heads, Lee Bowery, etc. I walked through the exhibition thinking something like, “This is your life.” It really was the cultural milieu I’ve existed in. If that’s how you define postmodernism, I’m very much part of that era.
Can we talk about your collaborations with Alessandro Mendini, the Italian postmodern cult hero?
Oh, yes. Wonderful things sometimes do happen just by circumstance. Mendini was given the job of designing the Byblos Art Hotel in Italy with the idea was that it was going to be full of contemporary art. So they contacted me about doing a couple of paintings accompanied by a wall mural in the hotel bar. As it turned out, the people there were very disorganized. They kept sending me different dimensions for the room, and eventually I just said, “I give up. Maybe I can just do the paintings for you and not the wall mural,” and they agreed. But then about a year later, I found out that Mendini had designed a wall mural around my work—and it was absolutely fantastic! They never told me, because they thought I’d be angry about it. (laughs) But it was just the opposite!
Subsequently, you did a couple exhibitions with him.
Yes, I then approached Alessandro about doing a similar project at Galleria Minini in Brescia. We did an installation there, and one at Mary Boone Gallery in New York, and then a little project at the Cartier Foundation. Doing projects with him has been totally effortless, without any sense of friction or difficulty. At Galleria Minini, he started by sending me some sketches, and I emailed back about how I thought they would work with the paintings I was planning. Then I sent to him compositional studies for the paintings. Each step of the way, the project became more refined. I think it was mostly thanks to his flexibility and his endless creativity. I felt like I was in a rock band. (laughs) You know, how two people writing songs together, or collaborating up on stage, might feel like they’re just feeding off each other’s energy. I had that same experience working with him.
The one in Brescia looks so great. It reminds me of the way public buildings in the ‘60s adopted modernism—in social housing, for example. With that color, it’s like public art from the ‘60s in middle Europe as well.
Oh, that’s perfect. I like to say it looks like the Bauhaus on steroids. (laughs) I’ve always been interested in Rem Koolhaas as well. Years ago, I fell in love with his book Delirious New York. I’ve followed his practice really closely. He has focused more than anyone on a dystopian response to modernism—which I very much identify with. One could almost interpret his whole career as a dystopian response to Le Corbusier and his idealist modernism.
Koolhaas has also published so many books. It’s said that Le Courbusier did fifty buildings and fifty publications, while Koolhaas did fifty buildings and one thousand books.
Yes, and I used to say how Koolhaas was so much smarter than me—because I chained myself to one magazine for ten years, rather than work on a thousand different publications. (laughs) Because he does one book after another, he has the freedom to do different things with each project, rather than stick to one continuously.
But it strikes me, in your work, how insistent you’ve been for so long. With many great artists, it’s really about insisting on something over time.
Oh, I appreciate that. You know, recently I interviewed Olivier Mosset on the subject of his “circle” paintings. What he really wanted to talk about was repetition—obviously. (laughs) I guess I’m of the school of thought that says the key thing that makes creativity interesting is variation within repetition.
Yes, I think with repetition, something always happens between one moment and the next—something in the mind takes place.
That’s more or less how I define creativity—it’s what happens when you set out to do the same thing again and again.
Photography by Roxanne Lowit
Peter Halley (American, b. 1953) is an artist who lives and works in New York. Halley’s exhibition “Paintings from the 1980s” is currently on view at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, through 18 March. Later this year, he will stage his first solo exhibition at Greene Naftali Gallery, New York.
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen are Zurich-based curators and contributing editors of KALEIDOSCOPE. Together, they are directors of gta Exhibitions at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich, and founders of the ongoing publishing series STUDIOLO/Edition Patrick Frey.
All images courtesy of the artist; Greene Naftali Gallery, New York; and Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London.