Peter Halley and the language of geometric abstraction in art

For more than three decades, American artist Peter Halley has been exploring the potential of geometry in art and its development in the course of 20th century art. Both as an artist and university professor, as well as writer of essays on art, he remains fixed on the expressive power of geometry: its meaning, visual impact and connotations, not only in art but in our social and urban environment as well. One of the most eminent artists of hard-edged geometric abstraction in our time, Peter Halley paints simple, brightly coloured geometrical shapes in order to describe the realities of the post-industrial age. He believes that each aspect of our lives corresponds to a geometrical structure: Navigating the Internet, contemporary communication, our everyday adaptations to our urban environment, the ways that organizations are run, technology and society can all be described through geometry. A large selection of the artist’s works currently on view in his solo exhibition (the first in Greece) express this geometric reading of our contemporary existence. Halley, who visited Athens on the occasion of the exhibition, spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his work, his experience of teaching at Yale University and his views on geometric abstraction. Halley emerged on the New York scene in the mid-1980s. Influenced by French post-structuralist philosophy, he rebutted the traditional connection of geometry with spirituality (as applied in the work of Mondrian, for example) as well as the formalist, self-referential approach that was attached to postwar, American geometric abstraction. Instead, he became concerned with the social parameters of geometry. «Back in the ’80s, in the wake of Foucault, many people in many different fields were challenging the notion of universality and trying to trace the historical and social function of various aspects in society,» the artist said. Even though, visually, some of his works bear a certain kinship with works of postwar geometric abstraction (such as works by Barnett Newmann or Kenneth Noland), Halley says that they are really a critique or response to it. «It was a kind of art that was still really idealist and believed in abstraction in the traditional sense.» Even though Halley is still interested in investigating geometry’s symbolic role in culture, during the past decade he has increasingly come to view his work as a reflection of individual experiences and as, in his own words, a «psychological journey.» Halley continues to use the cell as a module in his work. He also works on variations of the same theme, and, since 1994, has combined his paintings with «wallpaper» digital prints in large installations and in an attempt to integrate painting with architecture. Halley also places much value on color: «I would be more likely to think of the expressive element in my work as color than drawing or, you might say, form,» he explained. Painting remains the medium he prefers, largely for what he believes are its distinctive qualities. «In recent years, both as a painter and a teacher, I focused a little bit on the nature of painting and I kind of caught up on the idea that there is a unique pleasure in painting, shall we say very different from photography or other two-dimensional images. I began to think that the unique nature of painting is that it is both an image and a tactile experience at the same time,» he noted. Besides the qualities of paintings, Halley is also concerned with the future course of abstraction in art. He believes that abstraction will be further isolated from its political and social subtext. «I strongly associate the presence of abstraction with the rise of linguistics and semiotic ideas. Semiotics and structuralism were very much about understanding what was behind the surface of an event or a phenomenon,» Halley said. «I think that we are beginning to live in an age of obfuscation of causality, and that, at least in the US and in terms of politics, there seems to be an increasingly intense or seamless effort to successfully obfuscate cause and what I would call the structural elements behind a political-economic decision.» Since abstraction is tied to structuralist analysis and this kind of analysis is gradually weakening, abstraction in art will, according to Halley, cease to to be invested with a political or social angle. At the same time, Halley believes that contemporary art is becoming less elitist and accessible to the broad public. «Art is less elitist in the sense that it is less esoteric and coded. But it has also become comfortably associated with the powerful masses and the government,» he added. Another recent aspect of contemporary art that it is no longer addressed to a homogeneous public. «The art audience is really no longer unified; people who are interested in video, for example, or curators who work with video, or even collectors who are interested in the medium might have no interest in painting at all. Similarly those who are focused on painting may not know much about video. So I think that the fine art world is looking very much like the music world, where the public interested in rock music, to mention an example, may know nothing of opera. I think that this is a relatively recent phenomenon and that 10 or 15 years ago people interested in contemporary art felt that they could understand the whole gamut,» Halley said. Strangely, he believes, artists are less confined to a single medium and are experimenting with different media simultaneously. During recent years, Halley has focused increasingly on teaching. He feels privileged to direct the painting department in the masters of fine arts program at Yale, especially since it was at the same institution that Joseph Albers – whose color theory has had an impact on Halley’s thought – directed the design department around 50 years ago. Halley also speaks of the Yale program as quite unique when compared to most other university programs, primarily because it does not emphasize the multidisciplinary approach that seems to be the general trend in art education. «We do not prescribe what painting should be. We just talk about the work in the context of a dialogue about painting,» he said. «Right now I am more passionately interested in mentoring my students and in looking at what is emerging in their work than focusing on my own work,» Halley concluded. His rigorous ideas on the nature of painting and abstraction, coupled with his work as an artist, must give his students the kind of inspiration he would like them to have. Xippas Gallery, 53D Sophocleous, 210.331.9333. To June 30. Teacher and artist: From Manhattan to Yale and Index «I sometimes think that my attraction to geometry was part of my childhood. I grew up in Manhattan and literally lived in a Cartesian, rectilinear environment,» Peter Halley, one of the most eminent artists of geometric abstraction said. Halley studied art history and fine arts at Yale University, where he is now head of the painting department at the masters of fine arts program. In 1980 he returned to New York, and in the mid-’80s was one of the founders of the Neo-Geometrical abstraction (the movement which is also known as «neo-geo» was a reaction to the emotionalism of neo-expressionist painting that prevailed at the time), together with artists Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach and Philip Taaffe. Author of various essays that link art with philosophy and social issues, Halley is considered an artist-intellectual. Since the mid-’90s, Halley has also been editor and publisher of Index, a contemporary art magazine that is modeled after Interview during its Andy Warhol days. Index includes mainly interviews and covers a broad spectrum from fine arts, dance, music, design and architecture.

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