Catalogue Essay

Catalogue essay: Paul Pieroni on Peter Halley’s 1980s painting

Peter Halley, Two Cells with Conduit and Underground Chamber, 1983, acrylic, florescent acrylic, Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 70 1/8 x 79 7/8 inches

The aim of this text, which was originally published as “Facts are Useless in Emergencies” in Peter Halley: Paintings of the 1980s The Catalogue Raisonne, is to provide an in-depth analysis of Peter Halley’s painting as it emerged during the 1980s. I engage Halley’s theoretical writing — which extends his visual language — while also considering the critical reception of his work during that decade. Though broadly chronological, I have been selective in my attention. While elements may have been missed out, the ambition here remains a general — if rapid — historical overview. –Paul Pieroni

Peter Halley, Apartment House, Prison, 1981, ink on graph paper, 17 x 22 inches
Peter Halley, The Grave, 1980, acrylic on canvas 49 x 60 inches
Peter Halley, Prison with Conduit, 1981, acrylic, fluorescent acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 54 x 36 inches

Traditional liberal humanism proposes a “private psyche” distinct from the social sphere. In contrast, Peter Halley’s return to New York in 1980[1]is marked by a sense of inseparability from his crumbling hometown.[2]Financial crisis, high crime rates, population loss, industrial fallout, and damage from the 1977 blackout; by the early 1980s New York seemed to be a city in terminal decline.[3]”When I came to New York,” Halley told Trevor Fairbrotherin 1988, “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.[4]

The Walls, The Walls

In the early months of 1980 Halley begins to paint brick walls set before misty Rothko-type stains. Paintings such as The Death of Socrates (1980) and Mausoleum(1980) are bleak in mood.[5] Something has passed. Or rather, Halley – isolated, desperate – is killing something off. His method? The slow torture of immurement[6]:

The first paintings I did dealt with walled up spaces. They were paintings of brick walls, done with 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.[7]

Let us note: the killing of AbEx is patricide. Halley’s ideology in the early 1980s, through the rest of the decade, is explicitly new wave in form[8]. New wave thought – in all variants – undermines predominant cultural horizons. How can one paint with a hammer? How can one break through the crust of avant-garde illusion? In 1980 and 1981 Halley tries. As his painting begins to push back at history, Halley’s project of expanding his art via socially minded theoretical writing commences.[9]

In “Beat, New Wave, Minimalism, and Robert Smithson “(1981), his first major published text, Halley continues to antagonize the key tenets of high modernism. By way of Post-Minimalist Robert Smithson, Halley advocates for an art that directly engages the everyday world (as opposed to claiming autonomy from it). Halley writes that Smithson advised that:

… artists must try to describe what they believe to be the nature of realityand not be seduced into creating escapist ‘dream worlds’ (either pleasant or haunted). He claimed that artists who are “dumb enough to think they’re on a cloud or something” actually serve to reinforce reactionary political values by reiterating social and political illusions in the dream worlds they create. (He said art was the opiate of the middle class.) Lastly he argued that the only way for the artist to become conscious and to figure out what is real is to engage in dialogue. His work contained dialogues between art and environment, artist and art world, art world and society.[10]

Accordingly, drawing on Smithson’s opposition to the privileged self-reflexivity of the modernist artwork and his insistence that reality must be engaged, Halley emphasizes the importance both of situation and dialogue in his own nascent project. In the early 1980s, Halley’s work speaks “from, to — and with — the ’emergency’ of postindustrial New York. (He ‘breeds lilacs out of the dead land.’)[11]


I lived in a building on 7th Street. On the ground floor on the street there used to be a bar or a pub that had a stucco facade and windows with bars over them. I began to do the jail paintings, paintings of prison-type facades. I was out in front of my building waiting for a friend one day and realized that I had, in fact, been using this image which I had never consciously noticed before – it was completely subconscious in origin.[12]

In “The Crisis of Geometry” (1984) Halley seeks to understand the changing nature of the geometric in culture. Drawing from 20th-century modern art, he admonishes Constructivism and Neo-Plasticism for their essentialization of geometry (geometry as nature), while also chiding Minimalism for its treatment of geometry as symbolically neutral (lacking signifying function). In opposition to both, Halley executes a structural analysis of the geometric, proposing that while once the geometric “provided a sign of stability, order, and proportion, today it offers an array of shifting signifiers and images of confinement and deterrence.”[13] Halley turns to Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison(1975) to underline this point. Foucault contended that industrial-era urban space has been carefully designed to exert sinister control over its population via partitioning and differentiation.[14] The geometric order of the city – from its apartment buildings to the grid plan – suggest carcerality, something that haunts Halley, ghosting into his painting subliminally. While Foucault accounts for urban containment during the industrial era, Jean Baudrillard is introduced to explain the spatial complex of the postindustrial city. Gone are the factories, replaced by shopping malls; where once production determined space and movement via coercive geometric arrangements, now consumption is the rule.

The reality condition , or lack thereof, prescribed by Baudrillard for this consumerist megapolis – and the art produced at its center – will be our concern shortly. For now let us return to Halley s 7th Street apartment – the seat of much during these early years – to a period before Foucault and Baudrillard, when Halley – still only intuitively relating to the advanced, capitalist space enveloping him – has a revelation.

Conduits and Cells

I was working alone at home, listening to the radio, turning on electric lights, being able to turn on the faucet, flush the toilet, talk on the telephone, turn on the air conditioner. I began to become obsessed with the idea that all these natural things – air, light, noise or speech were being piped in. I began to think about conduits.[15]

Prison with Conduit(1981) features a thin black line that runs horizontally through a red ground before splitting and entering a white prison cell above. If jails signify containment and isolation, Halley s conduits[16]suggest the possibility of information carried from the outside world. The conduits birth a more complex network vision for Halley s painting, while also signaling his emergence from social isolation. Stendhal wrote one can acquire everything in solitude, except character. Character – being a character- requires recognition. This comes in 1981 as Halley begins to meet people in the New York art world. The artist Peter Fend becomes a friend, as does critic and essayist Jonathan Crary. Halley also begins to actively participate in a bi-weekly discussion group for artists and critics. Above all, he begins publishing his writings, his first major theoretical text, which we have already touched upon, appearing in the May edition of Arts magazine.

Peter Halley, Red Cell with Conduit, 1982, Acrylic, fluorescent acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 64 x 42 inches

Reflecting upon this period of New York cultural life, literary critic and cultural theorist Sylv re Lotringer writes that, while at the end of the 1970s New York was still a dump, a pothole, with everybody still bracing for survival, the city was also cheap, fluid, wide open. He continues:

Artists were living as a kind of tribe. They were white, smart, and pure, professionally poor. There was a sense that they were in it together, participating in a privileged experience. Dwelling in cavernous downtown lofts, they made art that wasn’t meant to sell. (They talked about money all the time because they didn’t have any.)[17]

Immersion in this social milieu continues to register in Halley s painting. Vital fluids – another Halleyian neologism – begin to flow in and out of the jails through the conduits (which are positioned underground (below) the cells, occupying smaller, adjoining canvases bolted to the base of the main, jail containing, canvas). The effect is transformative, vitalizing. Not only do Halley s jails morph into what he calls cells (general representations of enclosed space), they also change color, radiating with new found energy. Halley describes this in reference to his Red Cell with Conduit(1982):

Specifically I began to think that some form of energy was moving through the conduits and illuminating the cells. I started using Day-Glo red to make the cells glow. I was trying to emphasize technologically-derived material and I also liked Day-Glo’s connection to Pop and psychedelia, in a nostalgic sense. The quality of the glow that it produced seemed very artificial, unnatural and eerie to me.[18]

What Halley calls the low budget mysticism of Day-Glo – like the banal suburbanity of another of Halley’s materials, Roll-a-Tex – represents his disillusionment with the idea of art as a privileged object somehow separate from the world of neon-pink detergent packaging or stucco domestic interiors. Against notions inherited from previous generations – principally that an original, autonomous, self-referential art could have a transformative effect on society, or resist its worst effects – Halley’s painting relinquishes itself to stylistic repetition, brazen semio-clash, and exaggerated formal hyper-realization. For Halley all that remains are models which, in line with Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra,[19] endlessly orbit in contemporary culture. In “The Crisis in Geometry,” Halley writes that his painting Two Cells with Conduit and Underground Chamber(1983) emphasizes the role of the model in the simulacrum. The space of this painting is akin to a range of possible models: the simulated space of the videogame, of the microchip, and of the office tower – a space that is not a specific reality but rather a model of the cellular space on which cybernetized social exchange is based. Further, Halley speaks of how the formal language of his painting, in referring to Hard-Edge and Color-Field styles corresponds to the nostalgia inherent to the simulacral age, a time, according to Baudrillard, in which the fantasmal-parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials alone remains.

Simulation or Simulationism?

By the mid-1980s Halley s painting explodes internationally, part of a movement labelled Neo-Geo (new geometric conceptualism).[20] Despite this success, the work of those in the Neo-Geo group – also including Ashley Bickerton, Sherrie Levine, Ross Bleckner and Philip Taaffe, among others – proved a challenge for critics (in particular those still enamored by the redemptive possibilities of critical art). Writing in 1996, Hal Foster argued that the conventionalist manner in which Neo-Geo reduced complex historical practices to static signs that were then assumed to stand as if out of time, suggested an early sign of a crisis in critical art. Foster s opposition is worth further attention.[21] In addition to objecting to the market-friendliness of Neo-Geo, and the fact that it was largely a project of painting (and not a mode of more recent media art, as preferred by many October writers), Foster s central issue regards the movement s failure to properly represent the abstractive processes of simulacral hyperreality. For Foster, Halley is unable to meaningfully (which is to say: critically) situate us in relation to the febrile complexity of the new order of advanced capitalism. As he concluded in Return of the Real:

In the end the project to represent simulation might […] reduce simulation to the status of a theme. This suggests two things: that the use of theory in this art was illustrational, and that the use of simulation theory in particular was contrary to its own claims – for if simulation can be illustrated in painting, captured here as a theme, how disruptive is it to old orders of representation? Here simulation became mere simulationism .[22]

What Can a Diagram Do?

Mere simulationism? I d like to conclude with a proposal against this. To begin, let s return one final time to Robert Smithson. Recall that it is from Smithson that Halley derives the importance of situationand dialogue in his own work. In terms of situation, as we have seen, Halley s art is firmly fixed in one place. Here he is writing in the catalogue for his 2001 solo exhibition at Waddington Galleries, London:

I’ve now realized what I’ve been doing all these years as a New York painter without really thinking about it: responding to the wonder of this city – its cacophonous energy, its shimmering sense of social reality, its absurd pretenses and grandiosity, the way in which it both crushes and uplifts our sense of humanity at the same time.[23]

Halley s New York is epochal postwar New York. The New York that stole the idea of modern art, [24] and in doing so becoming the crucible of progressive art, the forum in which the avant-garde was tested, broken, then remade over and again. Halley s situation within New York therefore also implies his dialogic engagement with the big critical questions of the 1980s (most notably the attempt to explicate, through image and text, the stakes of transitioning out of modernism into the postmodern). And so, Halley s 1980s are split between his crude phenomenological thrownness into 1980s New York (as a kind of the ideal post-industrial space) and his keen critical and historical awareness, established through multiple, wide-ranging dialogues.

The reduction of Halley s work to just one theoretical frame (Baudrillard’s simulacra) does no justice to the complexity of Halley s position regarding situation and dialogue. Yet this is exactly what Foster does. And in doing so, he only mirrors the paternal rejection delivered against Neo-Geo by Baudrillard himself in 1987. What he called the Simulationist School was a sham. The simulacrum cannot be represented was his famous rebuttal. But I ask: who was trying to represent the simulacrum? Definitely not Halley.

Halley himself describes his paintings as diagrams.[25] While conventional diagrams have a kind of illustrative literalism, Halley s paintings don’t aspire to static completeness. Rather, they bubble up from the Unsinn (sub-sense, a-sense, non- sense) of his subconscious. Note: I have used terms like visual or formal language throughout this text. In a way this is an error. Halley s diagrams do not have language. Instead they operate para-linguistically: being at or by the side of language. This adjacency throws the issue of theoretical representation outlined above into a quandary. Simply put: while Halley does correspond with – the ideas of others – this correspondence is always secondary; a kind of prosthesis that extends into the factual world from the intuitive and subjective point of his painting and its emotional conduciveness to the psychosocial logic of New York City.

In conversation with Margaret Sundell and Thomas Beller in 1988, Halley stated that the diagrammatic sense of his work was very simple minded, continuing to say that his images were extremely direct and obvious. This simplicity and objectivity is, however, deceptive. Halley s paintings are attempts to dehumanize his emotions, to produce objects from which the contagion of the personal has been filtered. In this manner, immanence (the subjective drive forcing Halley s painting into being) is always established at a distance.[26] It is in the space afforded by this distance that Halley cultivates the dialogues around his art. These of course include correspondence with Baudrillard and Post-Structuralism, as well as with others, such as peers Ross Bleckner, Sherrie Levine, Jeff Koons; major figures such as Andy Warhol, Frank Stella; writers like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg; and a host of new wave bands and musicians. That said, to reduce Halley s art to a rational, representational illustration of a theme drawn from any one of the above would be to totally misinterpret the basic subjectivity of his work. While the ideas of others – facts of the world – enhance (and sometimes obscure, confuse, even contradict) Halley s art, they never cause it. As he explained, once again, to Katherine Hixon:

The basis of intellectual and artistic investigation into the social has to be intuitive. You can t rationalize or systematically study these things as a sociologist or psychologist might suggest. The only route of an understanding of hidden sources of power in the social is an intuitive one, through the subconscious or the unconscious, from an antirationalist point of view – in an obsessive and incantatory way […][27]

Halley s 1980s work – certainly obsessive and incantatory in its reductivism and seriality – thus actively undermines rationality and critical certitude. Then – as now – facts are useless in emergencies.

About the author: Paul Pieroni is a curator who lives and works in Glasgow.


* The title of this text,”Facts are Useless in Emergencies,” derives from the lyrics from Talking Heads Crosseyed and Painless quoted in Halley s Against Postmodernism: Reconsidering Ortega (1981). Quoted at greater length in the essay, the lyrics also proclaim: Facts are simple and facts are straight/Facts are lazy and facts are late/Facts all come with points of view/Facts don t do what I want them to/Facts just twist the truth around/Facts are living turned inside out

[1]Halley s absence from New York was due to his following studies elsewhere. First at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover (an alma mater he shares with Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Hollis Frampton, Carroll Dunham, and Lucy Lippard, not to mention both Bush presidents), followed by Yale for his BA and the University of New Orleans for his MFA in Studio Art. Writing about Frank Stella in the January 1986 issue of Flash Art ( Frank Stella and the Simulacrum ), note the concealed self-reflexivity of Halley s words: Stella s modernist credentials are often supported by reference to his education: as a product of the prep school and distinguished university [Princeton], he is thought undoubtedly to be a worthy standard-bearer of the modernist tradition. Yet it is exactly this training, Halley argues, that situates Stella s work in the project of disrupting the stability of modernist knowledge. For such activity, the turning of modernist knowledge into postmodern information, begins precisely within just such elite educational machines.

[2]Growing up in midtown Manhattan, Halley is tightly connected to New York City. His father Rudolph was a prominent attorney and politician (he ran for mayor in 1951 before passing away aged just 43). In a catalogue essay for Halley s 1999 show at Waddington Galleries, London, Wayne Koestenbaum writes: when Peter Halley was three years old, his father died. I don t want to reduce art to biography, and yet the relation of the centered cell to the digressive conduit expresses the relation of any ego to the absent, imaginary ?gures of ?rst nurture. We await a fuller biographic account of Halley s relationship to New York. It would no doubt be a fascinating read.

[3]Halley s return to New York comes during the age of Escape from New York(1981, Dir. John Carpenter). In The Bronx is Burning, Jonathan Mahler writes of New York at this time: the clinical term for it, fiscal crisis, didn t approach the raw reality. Spiritual crisis was more like it.

[4]Trevor Fairbrother, Interview with Peter Halley, David A. Ross, Jurgen Harten, Trevor J. Fairbrother, David Joselit, Elisabeth Sussman (eds.), Binational: American Art of the Late 80s, German Art of the Late 80s, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Dumont, Cologne 1988, p. 95 101.

[5] Things were difficult for me at first, as a newcomer reintegrating myself, Halley explained to Katherine Hixson in 1991. See Katherine Hixson, Interview with Peter Halley (1991), Peter Halley: uvres de 1982 1991, exh. cat., CAPC-mus e d Art contemporain, Bordeaux 1991, p. 9 33.

[6]From Wikipedia: Immurement (from Latin im- in and mu? rus wall ; literally walling in ) is a form of imprisonment, usually for life, in which a person is placed within an enclosed space with no exits. This includes instances where people have been enclosed in extremely tight confinement, such as within a coffin. When used as a means of execution, the prisoner is simply left to die from starvation or dehydration. This form of execution is distinct from being buried alive, in which the victim typically dies of asphyxiation. (last accessed October 2018).

[7]Trevor Fairbrother, Interview with Peter Halley.

[8]Halley s appreciation of new wave music is well noted. The self consciousness of Talking Heads was of great interest to him upon his return to New York, as was their method of quoting from popular music and popular culture, and their redeployment of those quotes into different forms.

[9]In his dual role as artist/writer (or artist/theorist as Halley preferred in the 1980s) Halley continues the critical project of 1960s Minimalists such as Robert Morris, Mel Bochner, Donald Judd and Dan Graham, as well as, of course – a little later- Robert Smithson.

Peter Halley, Two Cells with Circulating Conduit, 1985, acrylic, fluorescent acrylic, Flashe and Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 63 x 108 inches

[10] Beat, Minimalism, New Wave, and Robert Smithson (1981), in Peter Halley, Collected Essays 1981-1987, Bruno Bischofberger Gallery, Zurich 1988, p. 11 21.

[11]T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land. 1922.

[12] The Artist/Critic of the Eighties, Part One: Peter Halley and Stephen Westfall, Interview by Jeanne Siegel, Arts Magazine(September 1985) p. 72-76.

[13] The Crisis in Geometry (1984), in Halley, Collected Essays, p. 74 106.

[14]Halley – once again- turns to Smithson to illustrate this. In a suite of late drawings, so Halley writes, Smithson presents hellish island environments, bristling with fortifications and littered with smoking and flaming instruments of death, most of which are formed out of simple geometric shapes like cones, cylinders and cubes. In these drawings, Halley continues, Smithson comes closest to an explicit Foucaultian critique: the geometric monuments of the enlightenment tradition are transformed into instruments of sado-masochistic confinement and torture. (Halley, Collected Essays, p. 86)

[15]Katherine Hixson, Interview with Peter Halley.
[16]From Latin, conductus : a leading, a pipe.

[17]Sylv re Lotringer, My 80s: Better Than Life, ArtForum(April 2003), p. 194. In this same article Lotringer goes on to spell out New York s future: However, while artists were oblivious, living exclusively off concepts, developers were warehousing buildings, betting on the city`s ultimate recovery. In just a few years, the situation had reversed itself, as artists were flushed out of their hideouts and their work was placed in the hands of dealers: a rematerialization of art that coincided with a deterritorialization of the art world reaching all the way to the stock market. (In other words, artists` work was now speaking the language of money.) One didn`t have to look hard to see flows of capital moving outward, swallowing new territories, wiping out entire lifestyles, and then spitting out clubs, galleries, luxury stores.

[18]Katherine Hixson, Interview with Peter Halley.

[19]Baudrillard – in an innovative structural-linguistic take on classical Marxism developed across two books, Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) and Simulacra and Simulation (1980) – develops a systematic historical reading of signs and the reality they (supposedly) signify. This culminates in the twentieth century – what Baudrillard calls the age of the second order simulacra – a time marked by the collapse of basic reality. Where once signs had a tangible relation to reality, now they only signify their relationship to others signs (symbolic exchange). In this way reality itself has been erased. No literal relation between a sign, say an image, and what it signifies in reality is possible. Reality becomes a thing simulated by the relationship between different signs; as Baudrillard writes: The very definition of the real has become: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: that is, the hyperreal which is entirely in simulation.

[20]Other names included Neo-Futurism, Neo-Pop, Neo-Conceptualism, Smart Art and New Abstraction. This glut of names is lifted from Eleanor Hartley s Simulationism: The Hot New Cool Art, a blousy article in the January 1987 edition of Art News. Foster himself also comments on the denominative excitementaround this group, writing that: By the middle 80s there emerged in New York a geometric painting that, in keeping with the manic marketing of the time, was given two[my emphasis] labels very quickly: neo-geo (sic) and simulationism (sic). (Foster: 1996, 99). Note: my preferred description, used throughout, is Neo-Geo. Notes: Neo-Geo was pushed by a network of East Village galleries ( another East Village, compared to the funky, punky, raw and rash East Village of Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Rick Prol and their legion of imitators ).

[21]Foster posits his objection in his seminal Return of the Real(1996), dedicating half of a chapter titled The Art of Cynical Reason (some generosity, given that tome s ambition to present an authoritative genealogy of art and theory from minimalism and pop to the present ).

[22]Hal Foster, Return of the Real(1996) pp 107

[23]This catalogue was written just weeks after 9/11

[24]Here of course I m quoting the title of Serge Guilbaut s seminal book: How New York Stole The Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War (1985).

[25] There s one thing about the geometry I d really like to emphasize. I don t think of my work as abstract at all; instead of using the word abstract I always use the word diagrammatic. From The Artist/Critic of the Eighties, Part One: Peter Halley and Stephen Westfall.

[26]I am channeling Halley s text “Against Postmodernism: Reconsidering Ortega (Arts Magazine, November 1981) back into his own work here. Though seldom directly self-referential, much of Halley s writing codes his own project into the work of others.

[27]Katherine Hixson, Interview with Peter Halley.

Peter Halley, Two Cells With Circulating Conduit, 1987; acrylic, florescent acrylic, Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 77 1/8 x 138 1/4 inches
Peter Halley, Alphaville, 1987, acrylic and fluorescent acrylic on canvas 62 x 192 inches
Peter Halley, Delayed Reaction, 1989, acrylic, fluorescent acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on canvas 90 x 100 inches
Peter Halley, Prison, 1989, acrylic, fluorescent acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 83 x 119 inches

About the author: Paul Pieroni is a curator who lives and works in Glasgow.


  1. Interesting interpretations and inspirations behind these works. The wonderful thing about abstract art is that it can have various meanings to people, some of which the artist may have intended, others he or she didn’t intend at all. Love the precision as well.

  2. liked “Artists were living as a kind of tribe. They were white, smart, and �pure,� professionally poor. There was a sense that they were in it together, participating in a privileged experience. “…

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