The Artist/Critic of the Eighties, Part One: Peter Halley and Stephen Westfall
Arts Magazine, Sept. 1985, pp 72-76
There are a number of young artists today who are functioning as critics (by this I mean those who have been writing fairly consistently on contemporary art for the art periodicals). When one examines them as a group, what seems to be characteristic is diversity in approach, both in style and methodology — a diversity which I suppose, could be predicted in light of the situation in the art itself. It is in contrast, for example, to criticism by artists in the ‘60s when young Minimalists such as Judd, Morris, Bochner, and Graham were writing. They wrote in a stylistically minimal mode and argued for art that related to their own work. Smithson was the first to step away to develop paraliterary texts in the late ‘60s.
Peter Halley represents one pole of this discourse. He prefers to be thought of as a theorist rather than as a critic. Two articles in 1981 introduced his career as a writer. In the first, “Beat, Minimalism, New Wave, and Robert Smithson” (Arts Magazine, May 1981), Halley argued that contrary to New Wave art thinking, all the above share concern with the same issue: “America’s fascination-repulsion for its shallow cultural roots and its vulnerability to the impact of technological change.” Despite different responses, they share a preoccupation with post-industrial culture, a fascination with media images rather than nostalgic conception of nature to inform them on reality. Pointing out the importance of printed matter to the Minimalists and New Wave like the Talking Heads, Halley relates these groups to Beat writers Ginsberg and Burroughs obsessed with urban life, the terrifying products of science and industry, and the structure of society.
According to Halley, Smithson’s genius lay in his ability to go beyond the initial statements of Minimalism, serving as a link between these seemingly different movements. What he particularly responded to was Smithson’s insistence on the fact that artists must be conscious of the motivations that guide their work, of their role in society, and of the role their work plays. Artists, Smithson said, must try to describe what they believe to be the nature of reality and not be seduced into creating escapist “dream worlds” which he tied to reactionary political values. Finally, Halley has adopted Smithson’s position that the artist must acquire a coherent methodology.
In this first article are the seeds of Halley’s theoretical position: his belief in intertextuality which elucidates art developments through connections to other cultural, scientific, and political directions; his stress on the shift from nature to culture — a post-industrial culture which focuses on technology and urban life; his ironic attitude toward art, conceiving it as a simulacrum rather than real. To establish these principles, Halley had a driving need to understand what had changed in art thinking from the 1960s through the ‘70s to the ‘80s.
In his second article, “Against Post-Modernism, Reconsidering Ortega” (Art Magazine, November 1981), Halley extends this historical investigation to explore the relationships between 19th and 20th century thought. He spells out more clearly his own political/theoretical position by supporting Ortega’s modernism in contrast to Greenberg’s which “provided a positivist, determinist theory to support American art” that was tied to the values of both 19th-century capitalism and 19th-century Marxism. For Ortega, the primarily intellectual force in the 20th century is relativism which, premised on doubt, requires political liberalism. It is anti-populist.
Halley wrote that Ortega’s “new style,” modernism, tends “to dehumanize art, to avoid living forms, to see the work of art as nothing but a work of art, to consider art as play and nothing else, to be essentially ironic, to beware of sham and hence to aspire to scrupulous realization, and to regard art as a thing of no transcending consequence.” He validates the applicability of Ortega’s theory by tying together artists of different persuasions on the basis of similar mechanisms or meaning rather than the unity of formal concerns. In the visual arts he cited Picasso, Duchamp, Johns, Reinhardt, and Warhol as historical threads in this broader definition of Modernism, but he saw it most alive in contemporary music, where “irony and doubt to political and social issues” serve the purpose of preserving the possibility of liberal democracy.
Halley is against writing reviews. “I’ve never been really too interested in evaluating the quality of works of art, although I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to do. I like the way Donald Judd does that in his critical writing — he makes it a radical form — but I never wanted to get involved in that. I try to do the opposite in that I try to talk about specific works of art as little as possible, which is a little perverse, because academically I was trained to concentrate on what is actually going on in the work.”
Nevertheless, he did write a sustained piece on one painter, Ross Bleckner in 1982, crediting Bleckner with a great deal of ideology in his paintings while locating him in a temporal/ideological historical framework that speaks for Halley himself. Using ‘60s Op Art which tied Bauhaus formalism to the modernity of the American corporation as a symbol of the failure of positivism, Halley established Op as the sociology of the mid-sixties that ‘80s artists like Bleckner as well as musical groups relived. He discussed Bleckner’s ironic stance, lauding the artist’s ability to make art in which the inconsequential and the transcendent coexist.
In “Nature and Culture” (Arts Magazine, September 1983), Halley explored the underlying changes in culture as they are reflected in the art world from World War II to the present, explaining it in socio-political terms. This is his first attempt at sorting out the distinguishing characteristics of structuralist and post-structuralist thought, its
“The Crisis in Geometry,” (Arts Magazine, Summer 1984) comes closest to articulating Halley’s views in ways discernible in his paintings. Here he questions to what purpose geometric form is put in our culture. He examines geometry in relation to its changing role in cultural history rather than as an a priori ideal of the mental process.
He separates today’s use of geometry from both the formalists’ (Constructivism and Neoplasticist) doctrine of form as form and from Minimalism’s geometric form emptied of its signifying function. Halley says that we are launched into a structuralist search for the veiled signifieds that the geometric sign may yield. “Why,” he asks, “is modern society so obsessed with geometric form that for at least the last two centuries, we have striven to build and live in geometric environments of increasing complexity and exclusivity?”
He finds the answer to this question in Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment and Baudrillard’s Simulations, texts which he believes have influenced the production of geometric art and may aid in decoding the geometric work produced during these years of crisis. He presents Foucault’s argument that space in the industrial society became symmetrically differentiated and partitioned to establish orderly movement.
These geometric patterns are ones of confinement and surveillance present in industrial society. In relating this to the art of the ‘70s, Halley sees it in opposition to the geometric mysticism of Mondrian, Malevich, Rothko and Newman. It is relevant to the geometric art of the ‘70s because it reinterprets Minimalism’s claim that it had achieved intellectual neutrality. Halley supports Post-Minimalism’s confrontation between idealist geometry and the actual geometries of the industrial landscape, its proximity to Foucaultian critique in the introduction into sculpture of monuments as instruments of sado-masochistic confinement, threat separation from reason, fictive ideological programs, awareness of power and violence.
He offers Baudrillard’s text as relevant for the geometric work of the1980s. These ‘80s artists exemplified by Halley, are products of a postindustrial environment where the experience is not of factories but of subdivisions, not of production but of consumption. Foucaultian confinement has been transformed into Baudrillardian deterrence; the hard geometries of institutions have given way to the soft geometries of interstate highways, computers, and electronic entertainment.
Halley discusses the relevance of Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacrum which in the geometric art of the ‘80s has manifested itself in mocking the mechanisms of response that earlier art thought it had, namely, a transformative effect on society. He elaborates, discussing his own art in this context and separating it from other current media-oriented art.
Jeanne Siegel: Can you discuss how these ideas relate to your own evolution?
JS: Do you see the works becoming more complex?
JS: Another compositional feature which appears often is the division of the canvas into two component parts. Usually the gridlike structure appears in the bottom. This is eccentric in terms of our usual association with grids as an all-over pattern. What does it mean?
JS: What do you see as the relationship between theory and art that is obviously important to you and your work? Do you use Foucault or Baudrillard as theoretical guidelines?
JS: The relation between your theory, paintings, and writings seems close.
JP: This sounds like the theory came first.
While recognizing that Halley links his use of color to Baudrillard, it is important to point out that he has other authority figures in the form of modernist painters who have been a strong influence. As a Yale undergraduate, he owned a copy of The Interaction of Color and remains interested in color from a Bauhaus point of view, although he thinks his paintings satirize some of those issues rather than taking them seriously: “One of the things I got from Albers, which I don’t think you’re supposed to get, was the sense of detachment about how color could be used. Because oftentimes I make hypothetical propositions to myself such as: if this painting were blue instead of red, what would be the difference in its effect on the viewer? I feel that I got out of that kind of treatment of color a linguistic or semiotic idea about how to use color.”
He admires early Judds, particularly those combining day-glo colors and texture. At the same time, he likes ‘60s Color-Field paintings and tries to bring a little of the spirit of those into his own work. In referring to Noland’s early painting, he describes “its light-on-its-feet approach.” He sees it as not too humanistic, not too pretentious, even casual, but it has a presence in a room that can change things and create a little energy.
Halley’s day-glo colors have other sources. “They’ve become universal,” he says. “I noticed them in advertising first. For years, rather than use regular inks or pigments, consumer packaging has used day-glo because it’s brighter, more intense, and more noticeable [e.g., Halley’s tennis ball yellow]. Now it’s in video games.”
There are other obvious references. Halley likes Reinhardt’s seamless look, considering him a virtuoso. He is attracted to Newman. And on and on. At the moment he is mulling over Mondrian, seeing the latter’s late work as depicting some sort of ideal urban environment which Halley interprets as a distillation of the schematic elements of that environment. Surprising, perhaps, is his responsiveness to late Guston whose work he sees as a sort of endgame modernism — a quality which he thinks his own work possesses.
Halley is a synthesizer within a post-modernist dialectic. The connections must be understood in part in light of Halley’s adaptation of theories of Baudrillard based on the simulacrum. Thus, according to Halley, there can be only a simulacrum of art, not the “real thing” resplendent with transcendent significance and referents, only a simulacrum with “orbital recurrence of the models” (nostalgia) and “simulated generation of difference” (styles). In lifting techniques from hard-edge and Color-Field styles, Halley explains that within the simulacrum, nostalgia, the phantasmal parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials, alone remains. For Halley, “those styles used as a reference to an idea about abstraction and an ideology of technical advance replace reference to the real.” Through the simulacrum theory, he identifies with other ‘80s artists such as Sherrie Levine, R.M. Fischer, and Jeff Koons.
JS: Do you still feel the same theories apply to the artists whom you cited in earlier critical writing?
JS: In recent work, those two artists have become more political.
JS: How did you get into writing in the first place?
JS: Wouldn’t you say that generally what you choose to write about has that as a primary quality?
JS: Have you written for publications outside of art ones?
JS: Has your involvement in writing influenced your work?
JS: As an artist, aren’t you especially sympathetic to other artists’ critical writings?
JS: What about critical writing today?
JS: You described it as coded. I think there’s more coding in this writing than in your work.
JS: I belong to a school of thought that believes, unlike fiction or other writings outside of criticism where I would accept and might even be intrigued by such obfuscations, criticism should be clear. The reader should not have to labor over criticism to appreciate the ideas being expressed.
JS: Do you think Clement Greenberg was a good critic?
JS: Do you think Greenberg was totally aware of it?
JS: Although you’re ideologically opposed to Greenberg, you share with him an oracular urge in that you too make pronouncements on what you think art should be.
JS: What do you see as behind the pervasive need to use an authority figure to substantiate theory today? You share this critical approach.
JS: Then you want your audience to bring information to both your painting and your writing.
JS: Do you think that there were always these levels of misunderstandings?
JS: Do you admire Robert Morris’ writing of the ‘60s?
JS: Why do you find that significant?
JS: With the exception of Thomas Lawson, you are the only artist/critic writing as a theoretician.
JS: Are there other links between your writing and your art?
* * *
Halley’s art and criticism interlock. His is an elitist stance obeying Ortega’s dictum that “art ought to be full clarity, high noon of the intellect.” While drawing on theory for substantiation, he doesn’t bend the theories, but he does select out from the sources what he needs. His style is a bit stilted, his mental set, bookish. He assumes the role of rhetorician with the writing becoming a commentary. But he avoids being academic by virtue of a quirky and exploratory turn of mind.
One of the inevitable questions that arises when an artist writes close to his own work is how the work measures up to the word. Halley doesn’t see this as a problem because, with an ideological turn of mind and his commitment to intertextuality, he believes any information outside or alongside of the art, rather than interfering, extends and gives greater breadth to the work. Nevertheless, the challenge in viewing a painting by Halley is to get beyond his rhetoric which is so carefully ordered and detailed.
In one of Halley’s more recent unpublished articles, he uses a formal element “line” as a pivotal point around which to formulate ideas. In another, he distills previous thoughts on the role of geometry in order to describe its new deployment. As he indicated, his writing is changing, becoming more personal in concerns and sociological in thrust. Although he plans to continue, I predict that it’s on the decline. Nevertheless, he has already made a considerable contribution to the critical literature of the Eighties.