Peter Halley: Conversation with Karlyn De Jongh
"Personal Structures: Time Space Existence" book by Peter Lodermeyer, Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold, DuMont Buchverlag, Cologne, Germany, 2009, pp 276 - 281
KDJ: How do you yourself understand your work in reference to these concepts of time, space, and existence?
KDJ: How do you feel that relates to your own work?
On the other hand, m y work does present a very basic existential conundrum. In the early eighties, I painted plain, simple, square prisons. In these works, the square was no longer an idealist form, but rather a confining space. I was interested in the idea of isolation. 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. I was also very interested in the late paintings of Phillip Guston, with their existentialist gloom.
Afterwards, there was a transformation in my point of view. The more I t hought about my situation, I realized that I wasn't so isolated, that I was tied in with others – not t hrough an experience of shared public space, but rather through all kinds of media — such as the telephone or television, and later the internet. The space of my work became premised on the idea that the way we live is characteriz ed by physical isolation, but that we are reconnected through technology. T echnology and economics create these channels of communication in ways that we do not choose. I pictured this by painting bands that I call “conduits,” that connect the prisons and cells.
I also became very interested in Baudrillard in the mid-eightie s. I saw him as a writer who was really struggling to describe t he hermetic world and the mindset that the social forces in our era have created.
KDJ: If you cannot get outside of those human conditions — do you experience that as a prison?
KDJ: Are the conduits connecting prisons and cells related to the connectivity between individuals?
KDJ: D oes that have something to do with the fluorescent colors you use in your paintings?
KDJ: A few weeks ago I was in Paris where I saw one of your recent works. Because of the fluorescent colors, it is difficult to look at your paintings. The color dazzles your eyes. I was thinking about this in relation to what you once said, that you share with Henri Matisse “a desire to integrate the formal aspects of a picture and its symbolic content.”
KDJ: Even though you are American, it seems these European existential questions are important to you. How do you yourself see life in relation to death?
KDJ: Warhol once did a portrait of you. Do you feel your work is related to his?
I absorbed a similar viewpoint from the German sociologist, Norbert Elias. His great book is called "The Civiliz ing Process." I t’s a social history of the West from the middle ages until the end of the aristocratic era . In the preface to this book – and he is writing in the 1930s – he argues that consciousness doesn’t reside in the individual, but rather in the group, and that there is no consciousness unless there is a group. It seems he was arguing against the individualization of the psyche that is the emphasized by Freud. I think that all this relates to the issue of existence — if consciousness resides in the group, where does existence reside?
KDJ: How do you see Elias’s ideas in relation to your prisons and the isolation you spoke of earlier?
KDJ: So, for you it is more about what is in-between, between people — between these isolated containers?
KDJ: Is the connection also between the viewer and the painting?
W hen my work first came on the scene, it was not uncommon for people to talk about these issues . Now that my work has entered the system, it is mostly judged a esthetically. T he conversation mostly resolves around whether it is a good Peter Halley or a bad Peter Halley. It can be frustrating .
I think of my work a s diaristic. I like to follow the change in the paintings over the course of time. I t’s a little crazy — I really use only three or four symbolic forms , and variations in the color. The fact that I’ve been r earranging these forms and reworking them for a period of over twenty-five years is interesting. When I l ook back, I can often see personal and political reasons f or why the configurations changed .
KDJ: The approach to materials in your work seems close to M inimalism. Is that right?
PH: As a young artist, I felt that both Minimalism and Pop Art reflected a really democratic approach to art making. Artists had embraced commercial materials and techniques. It did not require any special skills to make a Donald Judd or an Andy Warhol. That was very important to me. It had to do with making art accessible – not just the viewing but the making of art. You and I, or anybody we know could take some bricks and make art with it. It was not a question of training or special genius or anything like that. My own work still depends on techniques that do not require a unique hand or special facture.
KDJ: You even use special paints — Day-glo and Roll-a-tex. Why do you use these materials?
At the same time, I could never accept the hermetic self-referential claims of Minimalism. Donald Judd, for example, said that the forms in his work didn’t refer to anything, that they were in effect signifiers without signifieds. In the 80s, with the influence of Roland Barthes and others, the issue of the signifier all of a sudden became opened up again. A lot of my early work is the result of questioning M inimalism and re-opening Minimalist signifiers to point to society, to social space, etc. All of a sudden, squares could become prisons. To some extend this reconsideration of representation was the experience of a lot of artists of my generation.
KDJ: You work with a number of assistants in your studio. What effect does it have on your paintings to have other people work on them?
KDJ: Is that something you are considering yourself, to have your work made after your own death?
I do think that people make works of art because they are going to die, and because the works of art that they make will presumably stick around. You can trace the development of that idea in European history. Christian immortality shifted into gaining immortality through fame.
KDJ: In your essay, The Frozen Land, you wro te about art’s ability to stop time. Do you see time as a human construction?
PH: I was always aware of Bergson’s ideas about human segmentation of the natural fluidity time. I’m also interested in how truth is based on a moment in time in both traditional Western chiaroscuro painting and in photography. The portrayal in a chiaroscuro portrait and a photograph is essentially based on how things appear at one single moment. Then, w ith the symbolist generation in the late 1800s, t ruth became associated with the idea of ‘essence ’ — that truth was not momentary, but based on a distillation of prolonged study and observation. S omebody like Matisse really did believe that he could portray someone as they were, outside of time.
KDJ: You have stated that in your work you “try to avoid any pre-1945 influences”, but in this conversation you have referred to pre-1945 ideas that influenced you several times. How does this idea reflect your ideas of history and nostalgia?
KDJ: You refer a lot to other people’s ideas and seem to speak about your own work indirectly. Does that mean that the historical context is very important to your work? Is art for you mainly about a dialogue?
KDJ: Prisons can be understood as spaces for isolation and contemplation or reflection. How does your idea of prisons and cells relate to Foucault?
PH: First of all, as a young artist thirty years ago, the ideas I encountered in post-structuralism were already familiar to me from the work of Warhol and Robert Smithson. I don’t think critical writing invents or discovers what is going on as much as it defines current issues in rigorous academic language.
T hat said, what Foucault emphasized for me is that we should interrogate our own culture — that we cannot really understand anything beyond our own cultural experience. Foucault b rings to an end the West’s romance with anthropology and non-Western culture , which was so prevalent from the beginning of the colonial era though the 1970s.
Foucault is so meticulous about his sources. He digs into the archive, delving into all sorts of forgotten records and documents. A nd t he only truth for him is what has been recorded in these documents. That’s one important thing. The other is his embrace of his own subjectivity, his opposition to objectivity, and his self-awareness that everything he writes comes from his own psychology. He pretty much states that his own subjective i nterior reality becomes the basis for his understanding of history.
KDJ: How do you see that in relation in your own work? Do you see your work as personal or is it objective for you?
KDJ: Does the personal not play a role for you in your work? For example, your paintings can clearly be seen as the work of Peter Halley. Is it therefore not something personal ?
I’m also interested in how a lot of artists are working with the personalization of consumer culture. Like, choosing between a Prada and a Louis Vuitton handbag is said to give you personal identity. All these little consumer choices have become more and more i mportant to the way people personally define themselves, in defining how one person is distinct from the next . So, I guess in my experience, the personal has been corrupted and has sort of disappeared.
KDJ: In 1984 you defined the concept of space as “a digital field in which are situated ‘cells’ with simulated stucco texture from which flow irradiated ‘conduits’.” Taking this definition into account, you have spoken about numerous variations of space, such as social space, cellular space, simulated space, and geometric space. How – if at all – do they differ?
It seemed very exciting to me to work with this paradigm. I don’ t think anybody has ever agreed with me about its importance. In the 90s, I felt that computerization was only intensifying this paradigm, because in the binary pathways of the digital world, i t is really the only way you can do things. I felt that I was able to go back and forth between the mental space of the flowchart and physical space we live in — they were almost the same.
I also felt that the structural features of this space were almost hidden. One night in the early 80s, I found myself in a New York office building with an artist who was doing a project there. The building had a marble lobby — and of course there weren’t any water pipes or electric lines visible anywhere. But when we went down to the basement, all these connections were exposed right there on the walls and ceiling. It made a big impression on me that these functional connectors are always hidden. It seemed to me that it was a worthwhile enterprise to foreground this issue in my work.
To conclude, I would also emphasize that the space I’m interested is human space, the space that humans construct. That also comes from what I understand about Foucault — that there is a limit to our understanding — what we can understand is limited to what we do as humans.
KDJ: Would you say your paintings are spaces themselves?
I get a lot of criticism for the fact that my work does not change much . But t hese decisions about what to paint were arrived at after a number of years. My subject matter feels essential to me. There are a few artists who really challenge the idea that change is a positive thing – like Agnes Martin, or maybe even more so Carl Andre, who has said that he didn’t want his work to change, that the time we live is so short that doing one thing is enough.