New York

Peter Halley

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

With their stark, rectilinear compositions and their palette of unmodulated blacks and retina-searing fluorescents, the nine large paintings in “Peter Halley: Early Work, 1982 to 1987” still pack a visual wallop, their Day-Glo acrylics as deathless as Clorox bottles. In the mid-1980s, some relict formalist, stumbling upon them in the East Village, might have mistaken them for a New Wave homage to de Stijl. But Halley, steeped in critical theory, dubbed his squares and rectangles cells or prisons and his rigid lines conduits, and occasionally introduced some liminally representational element, like a row of narrow rectangles arranged to suggest a barred window (Prison and Cell with Smokestack and Conduit, 1985). These aren’t really abstractions, after all, but schematic renderings of some nightmare world, which of course is this world: postindustrial society as Phantom Zone, a sci-fi penal colony of flattened metanarratives and simulacral surfeit. For many younger painters today (such as Richard Aldrich, Nathan Hylden, and Josh Smith), abstraction’s embeddedness in history and discourse is taken as a given. But twenty-five or so years ago, Halley’s blunt insistence on abstraction’s referential surplus was considered near-scandalous effrontery.

The paintings’ own semiotics, however, complicate the image of the neo-geo maestro coolly plotting his next provocation. Most strikingly, there is Halley’s liberal deployment of Roll-A-Tex, a lumpy interior surfacing much used in quickie postwar building projects. As Halley wrote in 1982, “the ‘stucco’ texture is a reminiscence of motel ceilings”—the implied horizontality providing the abject coup de grâce. The Roll-A-Tex is the central material fact of most of these paintings: In Two Cells with Circulating Conduits, 1985, it forms the two bright yellow cells; in Rectangular Prison with Smokestack, 1987, it encompasses the whole facade of the huge, hulking prison; and so on. All this bumpiness certainly makes sport of medium-specificity (the paintings are “a critique of idealistic modernism,” Halley pointed out, with some understatement, in the same 1982 text). But perhaps more significantly, the Roll-A-Tex establishes the paintings as things—not frictionless simulations but objects with traction and tenacious purchase on the physical world. The stucco texture further has the effect of magnifying other tropes of objecthood, such as the works’ wide, bulky stretchers; or that most of Halley’s canvases aren’t single canvases at all, but two or three asymmetrical conjoined ones, the seams between them clearly visible.

Also notable is the fact that, from the earlier works to the later ones, the masking grows ever more tactile and precise: In Rectangular Cell with Conduit, 1983, there is a (clearly inadvertent) suggestion of softness and bleeding where black conduits meet orange ground, but by Blue Cell with Triple Conduit, 1986, Halley’s edges have a die-cut sharpness, the layers of paint crisply defined in visible strata. It looks as if you could take any one of his shapes’ corners between your thumb and forefinger, pull, and find the paint peeling away with the satisfying smoothness of the backing on a FedEx label. The pigment comes to seem as if it has a provisional relationship to the canvas—as if it were simply there temporarily, like a Colorform. What these works finally invoke, beyond and below their imagery, is the fate of the object stripped of everything—paint, form, content, specificity, meaning—that lies so loosely on its surface. Their starkness registers as a discursive absence, like the absence of a signal on a television screen. They are broadcasting their own imperious energy; their silence feels animate and somehow withholding. In that sense, they are perhaps paradigmatic of the reified object—the object that we invest with life and that then refuses to speak. So should we call these paintings critical or complicit? Per their own program, the distinction is of course moot; for the viewer confronting them, it may become so. Provocations or not, they demand to be reckoned with.

Elizabeth Schambelan