An Isolating Space

Peter Halley Theory of Flight 1998

“In the visual arts, the era of the early 1970s believed itself to be a great flowering of post-capitalist culture. It believed that the commodity and its mind-set would be replaced by performance and by site-specific works. The artist would perform in real time, enacting an example of non-alienated work. The artist would play out the role of the free-subject, creating a model that would be emulated elsewhere in society. But the ’70s represented not the flowering of a new consciousness, but rather the last incandescent expression of the old idealism of autonomy. After this, no time would be real, no labor would be living, no cultural expression would be outside the commodity system.” [Peter Halley Notes on Abstraction]

What is the modern landscape? Is it the expanded figure, the micro-image made macro, or the empty field? Does it exist any longer as anything but a map, a system or a byte of memory? Clem’s color fields, as it turns out, were the last of the Impressionist landscape and the Modern spiritualist traditions. These things have metastasized in our Postmodern era through Modernism’s economic systems. Yet we remain nostalgic for the old visions, filling our surfaces with processes and materials. But is any of that real? Or are we so inured to our commodity systems that what’s left is our nostalgia for the mythology of the Modern Era? What does our landscape look like?

isPeter Halley Exchange and Response 1996

“… I was newly back in New York and feeling quite psychologically isolated, and began to think of things coming in and out of these isolated spaces, like the telephone lines, electric lines, plumbing. I shortly thereafter added a second canvas, with the idea that these were underground conduits feeding these spaces. So it wasn’t just a cityscape, it was a diagram of contemporary life as it’s organized. I thought of these early works as cable TV, but it seemed to anticipate what was about to happen with the internet…  there’s almost a classic postmodern critique of geometric abstraction, and that’s how a lot of people see the work. So instead of seeing abstract geometry as utopian, I’m seeing it as dystopian. For Malevich and the modernists and Albers, the square was sort of the ultimately balanced form. I saw the square as something confining, and if you thought of it in terms of a modern environment, it could be seen as an isolating space. So the first thing I did was put bars on it and Roll-a-Tex, which turned it into this very childlike prison.” [Peter Halley in conversation with Max Lakin]


  • Paul Harvey Scull

    Great read – thank you.
    I’ve often thought some of Halley’s paintings as having characteristics of the early days of hidden micro technology like miniature circuit boards but transformed and reconstructed on scale that can envelop the viewer.
    Great to be reminded of the rise of performance art in the 1970s. I attended art school for much of the decade and was constantly challenged as a painter. However one my favourite tutors was the British artist Stuart Brisley. He was always very supportive.

  • MStone

    Hi Paul – Glad you enjoyed the post. I might recommend reading David Reed’s discussions and catalog for High Times Hard Times. That era was tough and it brought about a lot of interesting ideas about painting. Thanks for commenting!

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