Interview by Michèle Cone
Flash Art, February–March, 1986, pp.36-38
I am not advocating any sort of irresponsibility. I'm just saying that the whole subject of decision making has been in crisis. The minimalists were interested in lines and walls and volumes from a perceptual point of view. I've been interested in the cultural meanings of these same structures.
Michèle Cone: Do you ever worry that you are trapped in your geometry?
Peter Halley: Not so much actually. The idea of what can be done with that language interests me. Just as in Picasso, language is a closed set, and yet he can infinitely reassociate things to make them into different kinds of signs. I am trying to do that with a far more limited set of signs. Also the work keeps changing as different psychological and cultural influences come into it. Eventually the work will probably change, but right now the idea of doing something that is limited and repetitive and pared down interests me. Doing something eccentric, not necessarily being an artist in terms of being a virtuoso who can do everything, but pursuing one tack that is eccentric, that is interesting to me. The idea of stylistic change is not important to me because I see my work as research into certain issues rather than as an attempt to create a stylistic statement.
MC: Do ideas come to you as pictorial thoughts or as connections with recent readings of Foucault, Baudrillard or whatever?
PH: I get them both ways. But it's not that I had a thought about Foucault and therefore I'll make this painting. Rather, I'll be making a painting or I might be thinking about a painting and all of a sudden I realize some relationship between it and something I've read or thought about.
MC: Do you think artworks need these cultural underpinnings?
PH: To me it makes the works more interesting. However, a lot of people perceive the work intuitively from a different point of view and that's okay with me.
MC: Foucault on the geometry of the carceral, Baudrillard on the geometry of communication networks and data fits the linear more than it fits the color in your work, don't you think?
PH: Except that it was Baudrillard who allowed me to understand what I was doing with those day-glo colors I had been using. All of a sudden I began to see them as hyperrealization of real color and I don't think I could have conceptualized that without Baudrillard.
MC: What do you mean by hyperrealization?
PH: Baudrillard says that in postmodern culture everything is hyperreal, more intensely real than the real. You take red, for instance, and you want to make it more intense than the real, so you make it day-glo red. And that seemed right to me, because it coincided with my own experience.
MC: What kind of experience?
PH: One reason I began to use day-glo colors is that I had noticed them in packaging and in supermarkets. I noticed those colors were being used to attract people and that seemed an interesting thing to do, so I wanted to try a strategy like that in my own work. Plus thinking about examples of hyperreal phenomena, it all came together. Another thing I have always been interested in is color as signifier, as opposed to just inexplicable expressive color. Foucault thinks of every manifestation of culture as having a signifying role in the social. So I began to think about the twentieth-century obsession with color and wondered if it could not be a byproduct of the cultural universe becoming so flat that if you have a two-dimensional universe the only way to distinguish one flat shape from another is through color. I began to think about colored wires, color-coded charts, how in hospitals and state offices there are colored lines on the floor to guide you.
MC: Have you been to the Pompidou Center in Paris?
PH: I first saw it in 1974, then I went back in 1977 and again in 1983.
MC: Every color defines a different structural element.
PH: I always thought of the Pompidou Center in a theatrical way. Not functional but theatrical.
MC: It's curiously on the cusp between modernism and postmodernism. Functionalist rather than theatrical in intent, yet a playful, ironic structure.
PH: Have you read Baudrillard on it? He says the same thing, but makes it seem very funny.
MC: It's funny and not funny because the openness there has become very oppressive to those who work there, I hear. There is no privacy. Love affairs, big acquisition deals, all of it becomes everyone's business.
PH: I think that situation is very contemporary, very Warholian. Working there must make what people are talking about seem very unreal. This break down of private space interests me very much.
MC: If there are no more secrets can there be individualism?
PH: Probably not. That seems to be on the way out, too.
MC: Doesn't that upset you?
PH: More and more I try to stop judging and just observe. If I were to start thinking about things like that, I would probably be very much against it.
MC: No sixties minimalist would even acknowledge the possibility of judging.
PH: Minimalism isn't much about the detachment of signs from meaning. I'm more interested in the meanings that signifiers like that yield in the social.
MC: Like what?
PH: Like the spaces of the Pompidou Center, for example.
MC: How about other minimalist signifiers?
PH: The minimalists were interested in lines and walls and volumes from a perceptual point of view. As the minimalist movement went on, this point of view became more and more hermetic and mandarin. I've been interested in the cultural meanings of these same structures, although I believe that Robert Morris in the late seventies and Smithson throughout his work were interested in the same interpretation.
MC: How does your reticence toward judgment and the decision-making implied in creation connect in your work?
PH: Actually, Warhol said this best: if you have to start thinking about the decisions you are making, the work is not going very well.
MC: Really! I always think about de Kooning's anxieties about decision-making.
PH: That is the heritage of the existentialism of the fifties, which is a valid way of treating the modern condition, I guess. In a sense, I am much more pessimistic. All the structures I am interested in have become so out of hand that I see the realm of actual meaningful decision-making as having gotten very limited.
MC: Yet I see signs of decision to be made in front of me: these bottles of day-glo colors on the floor. How are you going to use them?
PH: It's true. But I am very much of the school where you use color right out of the bottle. I am very much from the sixties school of making art that's descended from automatism. That's how I see Warhol or Kelly or Stella. They all come from Cage and random operations. Warhol has said that he used the square because he didn't have to decide which side was bigger. All sorts of people, like Stella, Noland, and Johns use color out of the tube "because it was so much easier to do it that way," Johns said that he used stenciled numbers because that was just the way they came from the store. I like to use primaries, or black and grey, and squares, and if I have to put in a line I'll put it in the middle. Things outside the work, cultural and psychological things, tend to be an influence in the same way as what used to be called humanistic decisions.
MC: I wonder if refusing to make a decision is not a decision in itself.
PH: It is, I am not advocating any sort of irresponsibility. I'm just saying that the whole subject of decision making has been in crisis.
MC: One cannot abandon oneself totally to a kind of flow.
PH: I agree. It's just an activity to demonstrate something. For me, I see the yielding to the social as a way of getting deeper inside the social, and a lot of younger artists I know do that too. Instead of saying, for instance, I hate TV, it's so lowbrow and dumb, they'll say, I love watching Dynasty, it's so interesting. They will embrace what might be corny or reprehensible as a way of immersing themselves in it. I am also involved in a more traditional yielding to the subconscious and to intuition as a means of insight into the social.
MC: What is your concept of the social?
PH: The subject of my art is the industrial and public world of cultural interrelationships.
MC: Memory, history or have no part in that?
PH: There is no kind of memory of cultural continuity, no sense of depth to the American memory. Europeans have a cultural memory that is very different. For the American, memory is like Coca Cola and Chevrolet. They are immersed in the most ephemeral industrial world. European artists have different images stored in their subconscious. For example, Kounellis can put some kind of Greek fragment in his work, and to my mind his work has some sort of integrity. It does not look hocus, but I don't think an American artist can do that.
MC: Why are you so hard on memory? I find vestiges from the past extraordinarily inspiring to the imagination.
PH: Through Foucault. I have developed a real interest in and skepticism about history. What we are told and what survives has a relationship to power structures. Personally. I have been trying to rid myself of expectations about history, to be able to try to experience things a new from a point of view that is rid of those structures.
MC: If you allow no history, no memory in your artwork, if you concern yourself with self-referential structures, how do you avoid being thought of as a formalist?
PH: I've been thinking about that. In modernism, the work of art is considered autonomous, the signs refer only to themselves. The signifier is detached from all meaning, and is thought to be an heroic effort. The perfect example of that is Mondrian.
MC: Yet he is a real subtext in your work, no?
PH: Mondrian is an artist who tried to achieve something heroic through the interplay of detached signifiers. However, with Mondrian, I as a postmodern tend to reattach his signifiers to the cultural world of circulation and mechanistic movement.