Peter Halley had his first one-man show at International with Monument, the now defunct East Village gallery, in 1985. The large-scale paintings were executed in a hard-edged, impersonal, geometrical style and unmodulated planes of highly-contrasting colors. SoHo had been in search for painterly, figural Neo-Expressionism’s successor, and quickly conglomerated Halley, Ashley Bickerton, Phillip Taafe, and Ross Bleckner into a “movement” alternately called Neo-Geo or Neo-Minimalism, the hallmarks of which were abstraction, rectilinearity, and machine-like finish.
Halley’s paintings, however, are not abstract. He began the decade painting radically-simplified architecture, including a recurrent prison cell with an iron-barred window. The title of the first prison-cell painting, The Prison of History(1981), in which one hears echoes of Nietzsche, Frederic Jameson, Foucault and De Man, reminds one that Halley went to Yale in the 1970s, during the heroic years of Deconstruction, semiotics and linguistics-based literary theory (Halley also served as the Director of Graduate Studies in Painting and Printmaking at the Yale University School of Art from 2002-2014). With Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt guiding his way, Halley has spent the last 30 years exploring, refining, elaborating and purifying the formal, material and epistemological aspects of this single motif to great effect and hasn’t come anywhere near exhausting it.
In a 2013 interview, Halley offered the following account of his technique. He continues to describe his work in Saussurian terms, although in the past decade, it has become more lush, joyful and—dare one say—painterly:
I started using Roll-a-Tex® in 1981. You don’t need any special virtuosity to make my paintings. Roll-a-Tex® and Day-Glo are commercial techniques. In the early 80s, artists had returned to using oil painting and brushes, making romantic figurative paintings. I wanted to emphasize the physical signifiers in my paintings. When I wanted to show the ground plane, I put two canvases together. When I wanted to make the geometry feel architectural, I put stucco on it. So the signifiers in my paintings are physical rather than illusionistic. Traditionally, artists are celebrated because of their virtuosity. To me, virtuosity is a little anti-democratic.