PRINT November 1988


Peter Halley: Collected Essays 1981–87

Peter Halley: Collected Essays 1981–87, Zurich: Bruno Bischofberger Gallery, 1988, 205 pp., 19 black and white photographs.

THE ABILITY TO INFURIATE two factions that believe themselves to be mutually exclusive is always of value, indicating as it does the presence of limits of which we were hitherto unaware, of complementariness where we had dreamed of opposition. Apparently sickened by endless talk about how nonrepresentational paintings have to be involved with the idea of the transcendental, Peter Halley has made a career out of paintings that are not concerned with transcending anything. This has brought down upon him the wrath not only of the transcendentalists, ably represented by Steven Henry Madoff, but also of the antitranscendentalists of the religious left. The Church spokesperson on this matter has been Hal Foster, and it is not irrelevant (a favorite word of Foster’s) that he and Madoff agree as to the character of Halley’s sin.

The transcendentalists reject Halley for his antinaturalism, and for the vestigial representationalism that he uses to undermine a particular reading (theirs) of nonrepresentation. Both those traits become for them the marks of an amoralism. The religious left rejects him for his work’s allegedly acritical representation of the conditions of the contemporary—in other words, for its amorality. Madoff contrasts the conceptual, i.e., Duchampian, basis of Halley’s work with other approaches to nonrepresentational painting, and finds it wanting: “We begin to see within Halley’s image a conjunction of meanings that constitute an overarching belief in closure.”1 The Reverend Foster, like, again, all Halley’s detractors, lumps him together with Ashley Bickerton, etc., and sees the whole crowd as having given in to an idea of closure that is “autistic” rather than Madoff’s “arching.”2 (Arching? autistic?) This the Rev. compares unfavorably with the works of Hans Haacke and Louise Lawler, which he describes as “proceeding discursively outward”3—although whether toward the socialist spring or just October is not made altogether clear.

What is clear is that neither Madoff nor Foster is prepared to consider the possibility that moral terminology is not immediately appropriate to this endeavor, or that Halley’s work might not imply either a surrender to, or even an interest in, the idea that all the options are closed where what has traditionally been called “abstract” painting might be concerned. The publication of his book provides an opportunity for considering the Halley phenomenon in terms of what he has actually said, whether it makes sense, and, if so, what sort of sense it makes.

Even as an object, Peter Halley: Collected Essays 1981–87 is likely to cause the sensitive to snarl and bark. Bound and clad in black and brown—the colors, as was once said about Brice Marden’s paintings, of Nazi uniforms—its typography is suggestively reminiscent of the English translations of the works of Roland Barthes, and its jacket, besides announcing the author’s name and the title, also announces that the publisher is Bruno Bischofberger, the Swiss art dealer.

The essays themselves amount to an attempt to theorize in a way that will allow the practice of painting—actually making the things—to have a connection to contemporary experience that Halley can take seriously. Like many other artists and critics, Halley spends quite a lot of time trying to reconcile the versions of the social offered by the American Marxian littérateur Fredric Jameson and the French social scientist Jean Baudrillard, whose methodology is a rewriting of Marx’s. Halley’s writing becomes clearer once he gives up the attempt: the two aren’t reconcilable. Jameson’s Critical Theory Marxism offers a philosophy of hope, predicated on the apparently infinite search for the key that will unlock the heart (a.k.a. the consciousness) of the working class and make the world well again (or at last)—a methodology properly defined as rummaging through the rubble for when things went wrong. Baudrillard reinvents Marx by turning him on his head: he concentrates on nonessential as opposed to essential production, and theorizes the world, i.e., the signs that represent and invent it, in terms of a clarity provided by freedom from hope—from what Nietzsche described as slave thought, a reaction to what’s bad by finding promise in counter-badness, hope in the rubble. Halley gets better the farther away from Jameson he is. His thought isn’t counterhistorical enough to be reconcilable with Baudrillard’s either, but he has found in Baudrillard a way of describing the effects that concern him. These are the effects of the postindustrial, by which expression we refer of course to a condition founded in industrialism rather than in any way independent of it.

Halley’s work, along with others with which it has customarily been associated, has been described as a kind of advertisement for consumer culture.4 Actually his essays seem to me to articulate not an esthetic of consumption rather than production (or, in Baudrillard’s terms, of seduction rather than production) but rather a kind of materialist esthetic of the invisible—more precisely, of the unseen, particularly as it is encountered as an aspect of the symbology of exchange. Halley is enchanted by things becoming more ephemeral as capitalism has become more entrenched: “In the development of money, one sees the progression from the precious-metal coin (bearing the likeness of the sovereign), to paper money (bearing the symbols of the state), to the plastic credit card (bearing the logo of the corporation).” In his cosmology, the unseen occurs as the barely represented, and it is in the name of the unseen that he rejects Minimalism’s desire to “empty geometric form of its signifying function,” announcing instead a “search for the veiled signifieds that the geometric sign may yield.”

I think it is this search that connects Halley’s thinking to that of an earlier generation, and in particular to Barnett Newman, whose work he admires. Perhaps a question of the Americanism of each artist, it becomes the question of where each finds sublimity. Newman identifies the space of painting with the boundlessness (and, for him, the boundless hope) of the American landscape. Halley, in a passage almost worthy of Thomas Pynchon, identifies painting with the geometry of exchange, literally represented in the invisible currency of power rather than in its material base (in money rather than in land):

This is perhaps the real meaning of American culture: the image of immigration over the ocean, of travel over the plane of water. That voyage entailed a process of erasure by which, through passage over an abstract plane, the specificity of Europe could be disengaged, leaving the laws of capital to play themselves out unfettered.

America was, of course, from some points of view, for the most part founded by people whom Europe found intolerable for either their criminality or their piety, and its material foundations were genocide, slavery, and class oppression (more or less in that order, the last still fully operative). What is interesting is that Halley locates the concept of the unfettered in the empire’s stock exchange rather than, as Newman did forty years ago, in the bits of the landscape that the empire had not yet “developed.”

José Ortega y Gasset provided Halley with a way of thinking about the work of art as a field of activity detached from the regime of the “specific,” where the “specific” stands for nature or history as such, and thus with a way to reinvent Newman’s idea of the abstract sublime in terms that for Halley at least are free of the transcendentalism inherent in the earlier painter’s naturalism. Halley’s image of the circuit reinvents the idea proposed by Newman when he talked of going to the tundra and being able to turn 360 degrees without the horizon being other than a continuous horizontal line. This is the idea of a physically present infinity, an endlessness that is in the world, as opposed to an idealism. Elsewhere I have compared Halley’s circuit to Hölderlin’s image of the waterfall, time present as time frozen, movement as presence, time as no change.5 One might think, too, of another artist with whom Halley is preoccupied, Robert Smithson, who reorganized nature and saw culture as part of this reorganization in a version of the sublime as the terrifyingly perpetual. It is here, significantly, that Halley gets closest to Baudrillard, and writes sentences like this: “First, in mass culture, there is the frozen image of everlasting life.”

Halley also quotes Paul Virilio, whose Pure War talks about the difficulty, nowadays, of finding a place where the great powers might have a major conflict. They can’t have one in Europe since that would mean nuclear war, and the former colonies are all independent now and tend to take a dim view of that sort of thing. Halley’s idea of the purely geometric environment of the present, to which he returns throughout this book, brings with it a concern to identify or locate the scene where that geometric reality might be thought about, i.e., fought over. This concern, or anxiety, both defines the writing and limits it. For all that Halley says about the sign’s detachment from its referent, the concern, as we have seen, is not with detached but with veiled signification. Too often the veil lifts only to reveal the same old rubbish about historical significance.

Moreover, Halley has perhaps on occasion been too eager to identify his own endeavor with other artists’ merely historicist invocations of an unattainable clarity. Halley’s own painting and theory would seem to demonstrate Jacques Derrida’s maxim that it is impossible to think of the sign as ever fully saturated with meaning, or as possessing firm limits. This would not be true of Sherrie Levine or Jeff Koons, each of whom may be said to offer a simulation interesting only if one could take seriously the idea that signs get filled, or exhausted, or whatever other sexual image one wants to employ to refer to what happens when meaning runs out. Levine sells the simulation of seeing through history, Koons the comparable illusion with regard to beauty. It occurs to one that history is a construction and should not be confused with reality, that beauty is uncontrollable by definition, and that in discussing artists such as these Halley seems to forget his own assertion that “knowledge may be doubt.” In a similar sort of way one wants to ask Halley, when reading that “Nostalgia has replaced nature as referent in post-industrial culture,” to what nature might have referred previously, or for what those subject to it—as opposed to deprived of it—might have felt nostalgia.

What, then, is one to conclude? That Halley’s thinking is, in its entirety, inconsistent? This it certainly is, a quality it shares with the writings of the author of this review, with those of Newman and Smithson, most assuredly with the mad art-historicism of Frank Stella, and most of all with Donald Judd, to whose work Halley’s paintings seem to be primarily addressed and whose prose his often resembles, particularly at its worst. But in the passage from 1981 to 1987, from “Against Post-modernism: Reconsidering Ortega” to “Notes on Abstraction,” Halley develops a theme, struggles or muses with or on a series of questions—of the sign detached from the world of things, or attached to it by its detachment; of the curious effect, on the body and on thought, of the defeat of time by technology; of the withering away of the state in favor of the multinational corporation, and of cash in favor of credit; of the perhaps comparable deferral of meaning from within the sign to its context, which for Halley is made up of screens and the other apparati of the modern office and, indeed, home. In Halley’s world one doesn’t so much think on one’s feet as ruminate in front of a screen. I recommend this book to all who aren’t entirely enmeshed in either the living death of nature or the dead life of history; I think I’d also recommend that those who are read it more than once.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe is a painter who lives in New York and Los Angeles and writes about art and related subjects.



1. Stephen Henry Madoff, “Purgatory’s Way,” Arts Magazine 61 no. 7, March 1987, p. 17.
2. Hal Foster, “Signs Taken for Wonders,” Art in America 74 no. 6, June 1986, p, 89.
3 Ibid
4. Lisa Liebmann, “M.B.A. Abstractionism,” Flash Art no. 132, March 1987, pp. 86–89.
5. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Nonrepresentation in 1988, Meaning-production beyond the scope of the pious,” Ails Magazine 62 no. 9. May 1988, p. 38. On Halley and Newman see “On Barnett Newman: Peter Halley & Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe Talk,” Parkett no. 16, Summer 1988, pp. 18–23.