Peter Halley
Interview by Trevor Fairbrother

“Binational: American Art of the Late 80s, German Art of the Late 80s exhibition catalogue, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, pp. 95-101



TF: How did your art develop in the early eighties?
PH: I could never quite convince myself to be interested in neo-expressionism. I found myself looking at the kind of photo-mechanical art emerging then, specifically that of Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Jenny Holzer. The other thing that I liked was art rock, particularly the music of the Talking Heads. I was very interested in the self-consciousness of their kind of music, the way in which they would take quotations from popular music and popular culture and re-deploy them. My formative work was mostly geometric. In graduate school, I had seen geometry as a link with the natural and was very interested in primitive art and the way it used geometric forms as a symbolic language for the absolute or natural order of things. Then when I came to New York in 1980, the paramount issue in my work became the effort to come to terms with the alienation, the isolation, but also the stimulation engendered by this huge urban environment.
            The first paintings I did dealt with walled-up spaces. They were paintings of brick walls, done with a brush, and lines would be painted in to outline each brick. They were about the spiritual space of abstract expressionism being walled up, and also about the subdividing and blocking of space that I found characteristic of the urban environment. After some months I decided that these brick walls were too metaphysical and European, too much like de Chirico. I began to look at more minimal art and Pop art of the sixties, and to push my vocabulary toward materials that had a more post-industrial content or association.
            At this point I was introduced to the work of the various European theorists that has subsequently made so much difference to me. And I also became familiar with various Marxist sources that helped move my work away from the humanistic preconceptions I had brought with me from my educational background.

TF: You also began to publish essays at this time.
PH: The time around 1980 marked a considerable intellectual change in the art world, revolving around the non-viability of the idea of nature as a touchstone that had existed in so much previous art. Later on, I found that that was the kind of idea that characterized Baudrillard’s thinking. So, I was trying to continually rewrite art history and define what I saw going on around me in terms of that issue.

TF: You were not interested in nature in art?
PH: No, I felt that it could no longer be an active paradigm for artists to explore, because it was no longer a paradigm that society could connect with. That inspired my first essay, which was about the Colab artists: I said that they were abandoning a meditation on nature and replacing it with a meditation on culture, and I saw Robert Smithson as a precursor of that change.

TF: What were you saying about the end of modernism or the end of history?
PH: I was fascinated by several figures, including Ross Bleckner, who seemed paradoxically to show a simultaneous spirituality and criticality or skepticism in their work. Smithson, for example, careened from the skepticism of his 1967 essay “A Tour of the Non-Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” to the essay he wrote on his Spiral Jetty, which is almost mystical in its spirituality. Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem Howl appealed to me with its simultaneous emphasis on the hip, Marxist, urban Beat point of view, and, on the other hand, an overloaded, almost spiritual feeling that was also part of his reaction to that world. The view of modernism that I grew up with was that it was spiritual, it was about a kind of purity and Emersonian transcendentalism, and that it had a very linear history. Feeling less and less comfortable with that, I decided that for me modernism was really about skepticism, doubt, and questioning. Around 1981 I read Ortega y Gasset’s 1925 essay, “The Dehumanization of Art,” which was very helpful to me because it defined a form of modernism based on relativity and doubt, way back then things that we now say are part of a post-modern sensibility. My feelings about spirituality also began to change on a political level: while being spiritual is usually cast as being somehow good, I came to associate it with fanaticism and a kind of fascistic excessive belief. I’ve come to feel that skepticism is much more politically healthy.

TF: Some people are afraid of your work because it’s tied up with theory; they think that if you take the verbal rhetoric away, there’s no content.
PH: The original reason that I wanted to connect the paintings so much with theory in the early eighties was my concern with the fact that the production of art, especially in the neo-expressionist area, was being increasingly divorced from any connection with what I call international or worldwide intellectual social issues. Art was becoming more and more an arena of connoisseurship, and with a concern only for its history. I felt that it was essential for someone to try to reconnect his or her work and the work of other artists with wider intellectual issues. I think that what we do in the visual arts is really only important insofar as it engages issues that are real in society as a whole –so perhaps I exaggerated that a little bit, intentionally. People forget what artists like Stella, Judd, or even Serra are supposed to be about. It all becomes aestheticized. These artists began with tremendously involved and emphatic theoretical positions.

TF: Is attraction/repulsion a central part of your work?
PH: Yes. The idea of being both drawn to and alienated by the realities of the social and cultural condition that we are in is central to my sensibility. The complex thing about the state of culture that we’re in, I think, is that the balance between positivity and negativity has become very tense. I’ve tried to make my work continue to be about a fluid range of affective reactions to our culture. I think that if an artist sets out to say that capitalism is terrible, that artist can’t make art any more than if he or she were saying the opposite. One makes art about the range of emotional reactions one has to these realities, and I hope my work reflects a range of emotional responses.

TF: In terms of attraction/repulsion, the use of Day-Glo in your painting is assaulting and has an after effect, but it’s also exhilarating.
PH: I’d seen Roll-a-Tex on suburban walls and was fascinated by it, and Day-Glo had always seemed very spooky and unnatural to me. The material is loaded material for me to use in terms of my investigation of the social. I’ve deliberately tried to make work that emphasizes the identity at the individual within the social matrix.

TF: What are the affinities between your work and abstract expressionism?
PH: If people feel that my work is suspect because of its social, theoretical, or political concerns, I would tell them I got all of that from the abstract expressionists, who were sure that what they were doing could have meaning on a world philosophical/political stage. Just as there’s an issue of attraction and repulsion in my work, there’s an issue of connection and alienation. My first images — prisons — were about alienation. Then, with the conduit imagery, my work became more about connectedness and interrelatedness. In the last couple years, issues of alienation have re-emerged for me. The spaces have become emptier, the conduits tend not to make connection with the cells. And as those decisions began to occur in my work, the precedent of abstract expressionism grew more interesting. It made me think more about Newman and Rothko. The space in Newman’s and Rothko’s paintings is today seen as a natural space. But I’ve read that when they began, a Rothko was compared to a TV set, and Newman’s materials were always industrial and workman-like. And so I think the glow in their work, as well as the emptiness of it, relates to social issues.

TF: Will you discuss your paintings in terms of these issues?
PH: My first paintings of prisons were on raw canvas, with white Roll-a-Tex squares with bars in the middle. But the more I thought about alienation, the more I thought of telephones, televisions, electricity, things zipping in and out of isolated spaces, and so I felt I had to depict the support system that these isolated cells had. In the real world, they usually came from underground, so I put a second panel underneath the first to depict in section an underground conduit network feeding into the cells. It’s about above versus below-ground, visible versus hidden, and maybe even the conscious and subconscious.

TF: What about the three-panel works in this exhibition?
PH: A couple years ago I began to make paintings without any cells in them, in which the upper panels became empty and flat. Underneath was another panel with a horizontal conduit speeding past. The issues became emptiness and speed (when the conduit became horizontal it seemed to travel faster). I wondered if lining up two or three of these panels would create the idea of something changing, going from light to dark or dark to light. I began to think that if the spatial aspect of our culture is so segmented and regimented, maybe the temporal aspect would be the same. For me the three-panel paintings recall a film strip with three frames and the sound track going below it. I thought of Warhol’s silkscreen paintings, in which one black image is repeated many times, conveying the idea of cinematic time.

TF: How do you use color?
PH: In the first three-panel paintings, the upper panels were yellow, orange, and red, making the idea of sequence very schematic. It related to maps, to colored wires: color as labeling device. Subsequently, I worked with just one hue and a range of close values of a single hue — orange or red or gray. Closing up the chromatic range gave a more unified reading and mode the idea of change more visceral. I began to notice, driving down the street, that almost every car or truck with graphics on it depicting the idea of speed or movement (such as moving company vans or four-wheel-drive pickup trucks) uses the same sequencing of color. I thought I had hit on something that the culture uses as an emblem.

TF: The monochrome ones get darker — what does that imply?
PH: A bleak reading. Final Sequence, the gray and black one, is definitely the bleakest. With the others, if there’s not bleakness, there’s at least a gain of intensity — things getting redder, more orange, heating up.

TF: A nuclear allusion?
PH: If not specifically nuclear, at least technological. Nuclear is so apocalyptic, but my own slant on the social is more that it’s a kind of grinding on and on. Baudrillard said that the apocalypse has already occurred — not literally, in terms of bombs going off — but end in terms of civilization. That’s an intriguing thought.

TF: What do your different paint surfaces mean?
PH: Where my paintings are flat, that is a coded image of space. When they’re coated with Roll-a-Tex, that implies a depiction of an enclosure or cell.

TF: You said in 1985 that your work is “extremely intertextual” — that the viewer who doesn’t recognize your use of one of Barnett Newman’s compositional devices, for example, will not get a complete understanding of your meaning.
PH: I’m not a populist. And I don’t think that my work or anybody else’s needs to before everyone. We talked earlier about spiritualitythis idea of the unified universal audience is to my mind a very negative one. The only way it’s ever been real is in terms of either totalitarian political movements or the mass media. It’s always been a negative thing. Why people in the art world think that a work of art should appeal to a great number of people is beyond me. The nicest thing is if it can appeal to a certain number of people profoundly, instead of in huge numbers. Ortega said that democracy isn’t about the rule of the majority, it’s about the protection of the minority.

TF: What do you perceive as the most pressing concerns for art right now?
PH: One big reality in the late eighties is the suffering and tragedy of AIDS. I’m more involved in it as a person than in the work that I make. It’s too serious and sad a situation to talk about too intellectually, but on the other hand, its relation to this post-industrial universe is bizarre. It’s the first jet-age disease, and it implies that the body-fluid supply of the whole world is linked in a way that has never previously happened.
The other thing that bothers me is Andy Warhol’s dying. He really represented a standard of nonconformism, no matter how bad he might have gotten in terms of hanging out with jet-setters or whatever. Somebody said social life in New York was so staid before Warhol, people wore tuxedos to go to cocktail parties, then went home. He single-handedly shattered all of that. I’m almost worried about the New York economy, post-Warhol. Who’ll want to come here? I hope that there’s another figure in culture who is as smart as he was, someone who can fill such a popular role and be as accessible to so many people, and still have something so interesting to say.