Contributed by Sharon Butler / Peter Halley’s catalogue raisonné needs to be updated. This month, a group of his paintings from 1980 and 1981 are on display in a surprising and revelatory two-gallery collaboration between Craig Starr on the Upper East Side and Karma in the East Village. Most of the paintings have rarely been shown, a few never, and I was delighted to see them, however belatedly.
For Halley, the years 1980 and 1981 were formative. He had returned to New York (his hometown) after a five-year stint in New Orleans, where he had earned an MFA from the University of New Orleans. Somewhat despondent, he made thirty-five dour paintings, mostly in shades of gray and black, based on urban architectural details. Some were shown in “Peter Halley: Post-Classical Paintings and Drawings,” a 1980 solo show at PS122, but the next exhibitions that included any pieces from this series occurred in 1995 at Turner, Byrne & Runyon in Dallas and in 2012 at Andrea Rosen.
Every painter has a rack of paintings, carried from studio to studio over the years, that present a retrospective portal on the artist’s future destination. The paintings at Karma and Starr, and a series of small drawings – diagrams, really – on graph paper, are the seeds of Halley’s subsequent work. His interests in geometry, symbolism, human relationships, isolation, connection, and tactile surfaces are all there. They made for a natural segue to the ideas of French Post-Structuralist theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard that came to preoccupy him. In 1981, Halley began publishing articles about the digital influence on art and life in notable art magazines. When he locked into Day-Glo color the same year, his work and career took off. By 1986, he was showing nationally and internationally.
Though liminal, the early works are endearing: the artist’s presence is palpable in the touch and quality of the line. What look like hard-edge shapes from a distance are in fact soft and imperfect, clearly made by the human hand. The drawings reveal a creative mind at work, discovering what could be conveyed through geometric shape and line. In the ink studies, Halley moves quickly from one idea to the next. As his ideas developed and his paintings became richer in content, the early work might have felt wanting to him. Yet it can be seen as a poignant bridge from the grim and gritty New York of the 1970s and the muscularity of Minimalism to the glitz and glamor of the 1980s and the return of lively abstract and figurative imagery to painting. In hindsight, the importance of this work to Halley’s formidable oeuvre is clear.
“Conduits: Paintings from the 1980s,” Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, 3, Park Dräi Eechelen, L-1499, Luxembourg-Kirchberg. Through October 15, 2023.
About the author: Sharon Butler is a painter and the founder of Two Coats of Paint.