Peter Halley (1953)
Born in New York in 1953, Peter Halley studied artistic practice at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts – from where he graduated in 1971 - and history of art at Yale University in New Haven, then at the University of New Orleans where he got an MFA in painting in 1978: a period of training during which he became interested in the writing of Robert Smithson, a figure in American Minimalist and Land Art, and read Interaction of Color (1963) by the German Josef Albers, who was a teacher at the Bauhaus and pioneer of Op Art, which would have a lasting impact on him.
In 1980 he came back to New York, where New Wave music raised his awareness of working-class and social issues whilst he was immersed in a dense and strongly geometrised urban space. From then on, Peter Halley tried to describe the city through New Geometry or 'Neo Geo' – a movement for which he became the theoretician – which could appear as a reaction to the New Figuration that was dominant on the international scene at the time.
Yet this art does not fall within geometric abstraction as it developed in the twentieth century. For although its artistic language had certain similarities its intention was radically opposed to it. Whereas supporters of abstraction were in search of transcendence brought about by form, in order to escape society's growing materialism, Peter Halley developed an iconography that was fed by urban architecture and the practical organisation of modern life – such as the invasive means of signalling through schematic or abstract logos, from the street through to computers: "I have always thought of my work as representing something, I have never understood abstraction." And his approach was radical and politicised, fed by the thinking of the French poststructuralist philosophers Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, the former, notably in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), analysing the workings of normalisation and control in our post-industrial societies; and the latter, in Simulacre and Simulation (1981), emphasising the fact that our direct link with reality is becoming increasingly loose in favour of a representation of the real, so much so that we are conditioned by illusions.
"I tried to use the codes of Minimalism, Colour Field Painting and Constructivism to reveal the sociological basis of their origins. After Foucault, I see a prison in a square. Behind the mythologies of contemporary society I see a concealed network of cells and conduits." Indeed, from the beginning of the 1980s Peter Halley employed industrial materials; simple acrylic paint or fluorescent acrylic Day-Glo, and Roll-a-Tex - a synthetic roughcast - first in tones of black, greys and whites, then increasingly in more brightly coloured tones to create recurrent motifs that were often identified in the title of the work: Cells represented by quadrilaterals, and Prisons by schematic window bars, the elements being connected to each other by a network of conduits. The whole, which just as easily evokes a diagram such as those of the electronic circuits of our various devices, tries to warn of the ossifying geometrisation of the social space and its impact on our thinking.
From the 1990s, the compositions - still rigorous - became more complex, with overlapped forms and colour associations that were found in the urban world and that had already inspired Pop Art: as the artist himself emphasised, his works sometimes bordered on 'excess and hysteria' through the discordance or contrast of shades that were always flatly applied. Since the middle of the 1990s, Peter Halley has planned installations according to the sites that accommodate them – museums, galleries and public spaces. Although his earlier works were already sometimes conceived as a series to be displayed side by side, each one taking up the same motif, the artist now includes the walls where his paintings are hung, covering them with diagrams/flow charts or digitally-created printed wallpaper. Examples among his permanent installations are those of the State University of New York in Buffalo (1998), the Banco Suisso d'Italia Art Collection in Turin (2003), the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Texas (2005) and in 2008 the Gallatin School (New York University). At the 2011 Venice Biennale, his Judgment Day installation at the Palazzo Bembo was simply an immense painted mural of richly coloured 'digital flowers', yet still unsettling with that title...
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