By Alice Butterlin

A central figure in the Neo-Conceptualist movement of the 1980s, Peter Halley decries the dangers entailed by two societal trends that have grown steadily over the past decades: the geometricization of social space and the notion of connectivity. In his heavily coded paintings executed in fluorescent colors, intrusive technology takes the form of conduits and striped rectangles that resemble prison cells. Working exclusively in paint, he attempts to grasp the evolutions transforming the spaces surrounding us, while casting a skeptical eye on advances in technology, from the telephone to the rise of the Internet and social media. We caught up with him during his exhibition Au dessus/Au dessous at Xippas Gallery, curated by Jill Gasparina.

Tell me about your exhibition at Galerie Xippas.

Galerie Xippas is unusual. There is one exhibition room on the first floor and one in the basement. I wanted to dramatize this idea of a space above and a space below. I lit the staircase going downstairs with black light – it’s rather eerie. Then you enter the underground gallery, with short texts printed on glossy black walls and three grid-like paintings in primary colors. I thought of it as the inner sanctum. In contrast, the staircase going upstairs is lit with yellow light. The walls are covered with digitized versions of my drawings from the early 80s, composed like hieroglyphs in an Egyptian tomb. You emerge onto the first-floor gallery, which is bright and colorful. I wanted it to feel ethereal.

What is the text in the underground gallery?

I like to collaborate on exhibitions. The gallery’s curator, Jill Gasparina, wrote seventeen short texts about my work related to the context of the exhibition. 

In every installation you seem to take into account the cultural context and the architecture of the exhibition space. Why is that important to you?

It’s the only way I can work! Architecture and historical context are what generate my ideas. So, as you can imagine, making an installation in the context of France, Paris and the Marais was perfect for me. I am the kind of person who likes to walk around the Marais to look at the Baroque architecture.

Did you create the paintings specifically for this exhibition?

Yes, both the four paintings that are upstairs and the three downstairs. The four paintings upstairs employ the same composition, rotated ninety degrees each time. I was interested in how, with each rotation, you can’t really perceive that the composition is the same. The three gridded primary-colored paintings downstairs are a kind of pastiche of Neo-Plasticism from the 1920s. I like calling them “Pop-Art Mondrians”. I’m interested in parody as a creative strategy: parodying and exaggerating previous historical models, treating the past with certain sense of – what is the opposite of respect? – irreverence.

Are you interested in creating an immersive environment?

I’m suspicious of the recent fascination with immersive installations. I don’t think I want to be immersed. It reminds me of drowning! It’s illusionistic, something that fools you – it’s antithetical to a material-based practice. In making an installation, one of my goals is to slow things down, to incorporate puzzles and games, to include arcane references and create episodic vignettes – to give an exhibition a discursive character.

If you walk into the basement room, look at the paintings and then read some of the texts, I hope it gives you something to think about.

The staircase going upstairs, with its yellow light, has the character of a secret passageway.

It’s an amazing staircase. I wanted to work with the architectural space. All the little sketches lined up on the walls are scanned from my sketchbooks from the 1980s. I wanted to find a way to exhibit them, since they document the development of my work step-by-step. The arrangement is based on the wall murals in an Egyptian tomb – the Tomb of Nefertari. I liked the idea of lining up the drawings in columns, like hieroglyphics, using the drawings as if they were pictograms.

In the upstairs gallery, you’ve placed wall-sized digital prints behind the paintings. The prints use compositional elements taken from the paintings.

In 2007 at Stuart Shave/Modern Art in London, I also placed a painting on top of a painted mural derived from the same compositions as the painting (red., illustration necessary). It was an almost obvious way of tying the paintings to the architecture. Here in Paris, I was interested in how the paintings and the prints overlap on the wall. Someone said that it looks like how windows overlap on a computer desktop. Overlapping windows are really a big part of contemporary digital iconography.

The printed images on the wall are much softer in color than the paintings.

I was trying to solve a technical problem – ink is never as luminous as paint. The challenge was how to reconcile the printed color and the painting. I decided to use soft pastel hues for the print colors rather than try to make the prints compete against the brilliant Day-Glo paintings.

You have certain symbols and codes that you have used repeatedly over many years. When did you first develop this language?

About 1981. You know, all my work is based on the idea that geometric abstraction is not so abstract after all. It diagrams the way space is organized in the human world. All my paintings employ just three iconic elements: a prison with bars, a cell and conduits connecting the prisons and cells. I still believe that we all live in isolated spaces connected by technological pathways – just think of how we move around in automobiles, or what we experience sitting at a computer.

Do you think most people are aware of these spatial conditions? Should we be worried about how we are restricted to moving in these invisible lanes?

I wanted to foreground this issue in my work. I was encouraged by Guy Debord’s idea of the dérive – he challenged us to step out of the predetermined paths we use every day – and by Michel Foucault, who talked about how space and movement in our society is so regulated.

Did this come in the form of an epiphany?

Well, I grew up in Manhattan. I lived in other places for many years and then came back to New York in 1980.

That’s when it hit you?


How much did New York influence your work?

Well, it’s the ultimate Cartesian space based on the grid. Nature has been entirely exiled. At the same time, books by the post-’68 generation of French writers started to appear in English. Writers like Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Guy Debord and Paul Virilio were important to me. Together, they launched a ruthless attack on humanism and the liberalism of the Enlightenment. They undertook a clear-eyed examination of the space of the postindustrial, capitalist world we live in. Baudrillard gave us a roadmap of what would happen in the coming digital era.

How are those issues visualized in your work?

When I made the painting Glowing and Burnt-Out Cells with Conduit in 1982 (red., Illustration necessary), I was thinking about a single connection, like cable television or a telephone, going into your house. By the time you get to the mid-90s and the internet and World Wide Web, I was making paintings like Sociogenesis (1996) (red., Illustration necessary), in which the conduits – the connections – have multiplied and are going everywhere.

You post Google satellite photos on your Instagram account. What kind of message are you trying to send?

Well, you could say it’s a different approach to the selfie! Satellite photos are the apotheosis of panoptical observation. For more than half my life, satellite imagery was top secret, only the military had access to it. Nowadays, those images are owned by Google – and Instagram is owned by Facebook. My joke is – I didn’t want to give Facebook any of my own photos, so I thought I’d give them Google’s.

Do you still enjoy browsing Instagram?

It’s complicated. Facebook has become really evil. At present, I think Instagram is still a positive thing in the art world. It has democratized the distribution of information about art. People can see everything at an art fair, even if they can’t afford to make the trip to go there. Unknown artists have a free platform to show their work for anyone to see.

What do you think about artists that use Instagram as a medium for their art?

That’s okay! I guess I do that myself with the satellite photos. However, I am primarily interested in artworks that incorporate tactility. Things in the virtual realm are not so appealing to me. People tend to assume that digitalization will cause tactility to disappear. But in architecture, fashion and even art, digital fabrication has created physical objects and structures with a whole new level of tactile appeal.

Is that true in painting as well?

I often say that the reason we still have paintings is that they have a particular double appeal. Paintings combine the visual experience of an image and the tactile experience of the surface. Think of the painters who we most revere. If I think of Van Gogh, the first thing that I think of is the texture of the brushstrokes.

Your work is encoded with a number of levels of reference and meaning. Do you worry that it excludes people from becoming interested? 

I really think that the most interesting type of culture comes from things that are esoteric, that require specialized knowledge, that are difficult to decipher – things that only a few people are interested in. Think of Marcel Duchamp or Gertrude Stein – their work is very coded, very difficult, but also very challenging. I worry that in the art world today, there is less room for esoteric, ambiguous meaning.

Mainstream contemporary art has become so popular that it has its own rock stars, like Jeff Koons. Where do you draw the line between art and business?

Things are so transitory. I just read a wonderful book tracing the contemporaneous careers of Edouard Manet and Ernest Meissonier. Meissonier was the most expensive artist in the world in the 1850s… Do you know the name?

No, sorry…

He did battle scenes [laughs]. He was really rich. And Manet was pretty much nobody. The things that are the most successful and celebrated in their time are often not validated by subsequent history. It all depends on what the future is like [laughs]. But I don’t feel total despair about today’s art world. The positive thing is that there’s not only Jeff Koons, and billionaires, and things like that, but there are also many other artists and audiences around the world reflecting a huge range of priorities, ideologies and identities. Today there is more room for all of it.

Do you see a difference between people that appreciate your art simply for its aesthetic and people who try to dig deeper?

You know, it’s a spectrum. I don’t have any prejudice against people who aren’t intellectually inclined or who are disinclined to articulate their responses. People often respond intuitively.

Who do you think of as your audience?

About 80% of my work has gone to Europe. It’s quite extraordinary. I can think of two possible reasons for that. First, there is generally a much bigger audience for conceptual painting in Europe. Second, many Europeans think of the 1920s – with Neo-Plasticism, the Bauhaus, and the rise of abstraction ­­– as a really important moment in cultural history. In the U.S., there is very little awareness of that history. So, when somebody in Europe looks at my work, they might be thinking, “Okay, this is interesting… it’s responding to these ideas and this history that are central to our cultural legacy”.

Peter Halley, Au dessous/Au dessus, exhibition view, Galerie Xippas, Paris 2018, courtesy of Peter Halley and Galerie Xippas

Peter Halley, Au dessous/Au dessus, exhibition view, Galerie Xippas, Paris 2018, courtesy of Peter Halley and Galerie Xippas


Photographer: Elise Toidé

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