Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Peter Halley Early Work: 1982 to 1987 at Mary Boone

10 September to 24 October, 2009
745 Fifth Avenue, between 57th and 58th streets
New York City, 212 752 2929

Peter Halley, Rectangular Prison with Smokestack 1987. Acrylic, roll-a-tex/canvas, 72 x 124 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery.
Peter Halley, Rectangular Prison with Smokestack 1987. Acrylic, roll-a-tex/canvas, 72 x 124 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery.

In the 1980s, when painting was beleaguered and abstract painting under much pressure, Peter Halley was one of the few younger abstractionists who attracted attention. His distinctive hard-edge pictures were accompanied by his theorizing that, inspired by Michel Foucault, offered a highly suggestive social history. This interpretative account took us from Mondrian, Rothko and Frank Stella to his own images that Halley identified as “paintings of prisons, cells, and walls.” Modernism was finished, he argued, which for him meant that what were usually taken to be abstract works of art, including his own paintings, were in fact representations of the structure of power in contemporary urban society. At the time, I greatly admired his writing and enjoyed his pictures, whilst always finding their relationship highly problematic. But then the same problem arises, in my judgment, with the writings of Mondrian, Rothko and Stella, whose self-interpretations are also often hard to take literally.

In the 1980s Halley, who attracted sympathetic commentary by critics who otherwise didn’t like painting by younger contemporary artists, was in effect seen as a sociologist who also made art. Now, however, we are ready to appreciate him as a painter. How different are his unreal acrylic and roll-a-text colors from those of Robert Mangold and Robert Ryman, which by comparison feel so subdued. The total artificiality of Halley’s paintings makes it natural to compare them with glossy color photographs or video images. Brice Marden’s early and late paintings relax your gaze; Halley always offers a wake up call. And yet, in some other ways Halley’s art is traditional. Compared with Stella’s three-dimensional constructions of the past twenty years, how closely is Halley tied to the traditions of painting. It would be instructive to set Halley’s paintings in an exhibit of hard edge abstractions by Josef Albers, Donald Judd and John McLaughlin. His surfaces do, however, have some relationship with those of the 1960s sculptures by John McCracken. And it would be worthwhile juxtaposing his textures, smooth against rough, next to those of Clyfford Still. Once in the 1990s, I attended an Italian exhibition at which Halley and Sean Scully were present. After Halley described his aesthetic, Scully remarked that his was quite different. How interesting, then, it would be to set Halley’s Day-Glo colors alongside Scully’s oil paintings, which offer a very different image of urban reality.

Whatever the ultimate fate of Halley’s theorizing, this marvelous exhibition shows how well his paintings have held up. However you interpret his cells and connecting lines, they provide the basis for marvelously compositions. Halley is an artist who shows best in intense artificial light and reflective floors, which are provided here. It is surprising, indeed, how much variety he gets from a simple format, playing smooth against rough textures, and juxtaposing his basic geometric forms. These paintings, which twenty-five years ago were presented as illustrations of a theory of art have become aesthetic artifacts. It is fascinating to see how a culture dates.  However much you once strove to be of your time, if your painting deserves ongoing attention, it is because it can legitimately be compared with canonical works gathered in museums. Halley’s early work passes that test.