New York

Peter Halley

Sonnabend Gallery

Where Helmut Federle's work tells us that certain subjective possibilities are still alive, Peter Halley's work tells us about the abstract objective actuality that we inhabit. Put another way, he shows us abstract art as one more manipulation within a world manipulated by technologically inspired abstractions. In a sense, his art continues the work of technologizing and systematizing abstraction that began with Josef Albers' reduction of it to interactions of color. But Albers' paintings still had pretensions to spirituality—or at least paid it lip service through their titles.

Halley's paintings deny the possibility of “metaphysical” abstraction altogether, although they clearly demonstrate his desire to convey a complex content in an emblematic fashion. This content is suggested in the works shown here by Two Cells with Circulating Conduit, 1987, a vestige of Halley's earlier mode, and by Cell with Smokestack, 1987, a work that is transitional to his new, more purely abstract—though neomechanist—mode of mediating our code-administered, quasi-deterministic society. It may be a defiantly naive misreading of the work, but the dominating, inflexible blackness of the synthesized cell/smokestack suggests a manifest pessimism about the postindustrial world. Final Sequence, 1987 has the same obvious contrast of black “substance” and gold “aura” or border, the simple symbolism of which implies the Manichean struggle between the forces of dark and light, and the victory of the former over the latter.

Traditional rationalistic abstraction has been identified with psychosocial utopianism. Halley, it seems to me, is trying to articulate the failure of this utopianism, but without any nostalgia for it. Nostalgia is blotted out by the up-to-date Day-Glo colors, with their hollow, ironic immediacy, and by the gritty mechanical texture of the Roll-A-Tex surfaces, precluding any contemplative peering into “spiritual,” light-infused depths. The programmed abstraction that results from Halley's technology-inflected esthetic can be read as an analogue for the program that determines the underlying order of the world. Halley accepts this programmed order with a conscious fatalism that we may all unconsciously feel.

My question is, Are Halley's artistic means adequate to the great “critical” task that he has set himself—that of articulating the antiutopian world we inhabit today—or does it lead to the production of works that are programmed to fit seamlessly into our mechanistic, systems-oriented world? In the work of Piet Mondrian, the use of elementary geometry and primary colors to create an optimistic “dynamic equilibrium” emblematic of utopian idealism seemed to work, largely because of the subtlety with which Mondrian fashioned his fundamentalist geometric abstraction. In Halley, who is just as fundamentalist in his application of geometry as Mondrian, this subtlety seems to be missing, leading to a certain simplistic quality. The simple means aren't quite up to the complex end. This failure was not apparent when Halley used his cell imagery, which was both formally and conceptually gripping (if with the icy hand of death). But now that he has abandoned the cell for a more forthright abstraction, one wonders whether the work he is producing signifies much more than the stylistic residue of a certain worldly look. Although it still implies recognition of a controlling universal determinism, it doesn't seem as tough-minded as the earlier work. The new work is part of the program, one more abstract reality produced by it, symbolizing the sophisticated mechanisms turning our dust into simulated life. Halley's abstractions show us the new blandness—the new “uncreativity”—at its most stimulating.

Donald Kuspit