“Peter Halley: Remain in Light.” Interview with Jim Walrod. Apartmento, Autumn 2014, pp 91 - 105
Peter Halley has lived most of his life in New York as an artist in the purest sense. His constant exploration—either through his own work as an important painter and writer, or as a professor of painting and the director of graduate studies in painting and printmaking at Yale University—has been the example of a younger generation of painters to look up to. Or, as my friend Barry McGee once said to me, ‘He’s one of us.’ As modern as his paintings must have seemed when they were first viewed in the ‘80s in the East Village, they now seem almost more vital and startling in an art world which is overwrought with commercialism. In the early to mid-90s Peter, along with Bob Nickas, founded Index magazine, which featured photography by Wolfgang Tillmans and Terry Richardson, and was the first publication to feature Ryan McGinley’s photography. With Index magazine as a platform, Peter exposed a generation of like-minded thinkers from all corners of the world, and from all types of creative fields. It has worked as an outline for almost every art magazine since. I met Peter in the late ‘90s when he interviewed me for Index. I owned a store called Form and Function in New York City and, at 25 years of page, Peter was the first person to give me a forum to speak about modern design. The whole time he was interviewing me, I just remember thinking, ‘Boy, do I have a million questions I would like to ask him’.
JW: How long have you lived in your space in New York?
PH: I originally moved into the fourth floor in the early ‘80s and then, gradually, I took over the fifth floor as well. I didn’t live there for a long time. But after Ann [Craven] and I got married three years ago, we decided to move back into this space and began renovating it.
When you moved back, did you notice a difference in Tribeca before and after?
Well, I had been living in Battery Park City in a high-rise apartment close by, so I’ve been around Tribeca a lot. And, you know, it changed so long ago that I was entirely familiar with the post-artist Tribeca. I mean, it has become a kind of family neighborhood.
It’s strange, too, because I used to say to friends, if you saw a light on in Soho, you knew it was an artist. If you saw a light on in a building in Tribeca, it was somebody who was really, really, really strange—that’s how I remember Tribeca.
Right, and down the block was the Mudd Club.
What neighborhood did you move into when you came to New York?
The East Village—I lived on East Seventh Street.
What were your neighbours like at the time?
I had been living in New Orleans for five or six years, partly because I didn’t think anything interesting was happening in New York. All of a sudden, I start hearing new wave music on the radio, like the Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Blondie, and I said to myself, ‘I better move back, this is really interesting’.
So I moved to a walk-up at 128 East Seventh Street off Avenue A in 1980, one of the few loft buildings in the East Village. The first day I was there, I was trying to open my door when this guy came talking down the stairs in this kind of rhythmic way. So I said, ‘Hi! My name is Peter. I am just moving in’, and he said, ‘Hi! My name is David’, and kept going. And it turned out he was David Byrne, which was like a wonderful omen. I would hear this pounding, fantastic music coming from upstairs late at night when he was recording Remain in Light. And one day, I went to his door, an dI saw a note on it for—who produced the record?
Yes, Brian Eno, saying ‘Hi, Brian, I am at the coffee shop. See you later’, or something like that. It was an amazing sort of perch onto a little bit of music history.
That’s pretty incredible, actually. So, let me ask you something. When you came to New York it was the beginning of the punk scene and a little into the new wave scene. How much influence did that have on your work?
Well, the Talking Heads were the biggest initial influence on me. I really thought of the Talking Heads and David Byrne as being like Andy Warhol. The album More Songs About Buildings and Food was like the return of a pop point of view, the return of an artist who wanted to talk about how people were living in the everyday world, rather than a kind of romantic fantasy like Francesco Clemente or Anselm Kiefer, or something like that.
Its funny, too, because I have always thought about the Talking Heads as a band that conveyed information in an ironic way. Your paintings, after the initial eye grabbing, are all about conveying information in that way, too, to some extent, wouldn’t you say?
Oh, yes. I mean, the narrative that David Byrne was conveying in those lyrics, or shall we say, the fact that there wasn’t much narrative, was just so important to me. The second band I was totally intoxicated by was Joy Division.
I listened to them so much. Joy Division and the Clash, if nothing else, conveyed a kind of urgency and pessimism that existed in the early ‘80s.
Almost every single band that you’ve just named has an urgency to its music. And when I first encountered your paintings, that was one of the first things I thought: they were very much about right now. There was no denying their modernism.
I am thinking about political urgency. In the early ‘80s, the US seemed so urgently lost. There was a really bad recession, and Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. It’s hard to imagine now, but this seemed like a total emergency.
It was. Can you explain what downtown New York was like during those days?
It was bleak. Ed Koch had just become mayor, and though he injected a note of optimism into the city, downtown New York was still very poor, drug- and crime-ridden. You had to watch out for yourself when you were walking around. And there was also a feeling, I thought, that people didn’t really care, the police didn’t care, and the government didn’t really care. So at that point, there was a sense of community against it all among the creative people who were in New York. Yes, it was anarchic, which is why it took me so long to leave New Orleans. As a very young person in my 20s, I thought ‘I could really get in trouble here’. But at the same time, between 1977 and 1980, I am of the opinion that there was really a revolution with the pictures generation happening that was almost as important as cubism or abstract expressionism.
Right. Can you talk a little bit more about it?
Well, you have Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and RM Fischer: a whole crew of people who grew up in the suburbs watching TV and for the first time making art out of the experience of the media being the primary influence on their reality. In the work of those artists, I would say, nature disappeared as a referent, and media became the primary referent.
In a way, that is as important a change in the point of view of artists as maybe anything that has happened in the last couple of hundred years.
Did you feel any camaraderie with any of the painters that were around at that time?
Who were they [laughs]?
Exactly. No, but at the same time, knowing your paintings—their language and the information that’s passed on through them—you are the most New York painter I know.
I hope that’s true, but around 1980, as my work developed, my point of view vis-à-vis New York abstract painting, despite my involvement with it, was somewhat oppositional. I was making fun of the idea of spirituality and abstraction, critiquing the work and heritage of the movement, which was that abstracting painting was a gateway to sublime transcendence.
Right. Your use of colour—the silvers and neons—reflect back to Warhol, to [Frank] Stella, to complete histories in painting movements throughout New York. Even though you are a world painter, I always feel as if there is a familiarity with this city in your paintings.
Oh, absolutely, I see it that way myself. I grew up at Forty-eighth Street and Third Avenue, a block away from Warhol’s original factory. When I was a kid in school, the teacher would tell us about an art exhibition or ask us to go see something, so I really had exposure to abstract expressionism, minimalism, and pop art right from the start.
A model of how to be an artist in New York [laughs].
Yes, I was going to say that. What was Warhol’s influence on you? Because I met you through your magazine Index, which seemed like it was directly influenced by Warhol’s Interview.
Well, Interview was its model. Index co-founder Bob Nickas and I both had a real desire to get out of the art world and meet creative people doing other things. And to me, that’s one of the most important things to do to keep myself stimulated as a thinking person.
The thing that was so great about Index was that there was so much information—it was almost like your paintings. It was about connecting the dots between people who were doing things, whether it was someone like me who was a shop owner in my mid-20s or Bianca Jagger. There was a common thread, and that thread was your interest.
Not only mine—there was a group of us: Bob, the editors, Steve Lafreniere, and others. My role was to be open to what other people were interested in, too. Actually, very few of the ideas in the magazine were my own.
When you interviewed me, I learned that you like design.
That’s for sure.
Yes, and that you had an interest in Ettore Sottsass and what people perceive as post-modernism now, which I just perceive as modernism to a degree. Did the post-modernist or the Italian modernist group of the late ’60s and the early ‘70s influence your work?
Oh, of course. I have always been interested in architecture. And I forgot about this, but when I was in New Orleans, they built the Piazza d’Italia, which was a project by Charles Moore. Have you ever heard of it?
It was amazing. It was this complete almost Carlo Mollino-like pastiche, combined with a lot of ironic humour. I used to sit around with my mouth open thinking about it. It was a really successful early experiment in that direction. As far as Ettore Sottsass goes, I honestly can’t remember how I first encountered his work, but it was love at first sight. His use of form, I felt, had much in common with my own. The more I learned about Sottsass, the more I became interested in his point of view as a designer and thinker. And that was greatly aided by Andrea Branzi’s great book, The Hot House: Italian New Wave Design, which is a history of Italian design since World War II.
That book introduced me to Archigram and Archizoom. In particular, many of Archigram’s ideas seemed related to what I was interested in as a visual artist or painter. I’ve also always been a big fan of Aldo Rossi’s austere existentialism, which is a bit like my early paintings.
I want to talk a little bit about your collaboration with Alessandro Mendini. How did you guys work together?
I’ll give you a little background. About 10 years ago, he was commissioned to turn an 18th-century villa in Verona, Italy, into an art hotel. It’s called the Byblos Art Hotel, owned by the Byblos fashion company. Mendini designed the whole thing, and the hotel asked a bunch of artists to contribute work—there is an incredible set of Vanessa Beecroft photographs in the main salon, and they asked me to do a couple of paintings along with a wall installation in the hotel bar.
I wasn’t working directly with Mendini, but through the hotel bureaucracy, and they were totally disorganized. So at a certain point I said, “I will send you two paintings, but I can’t do the wall design. Every time I talk to you, I get different measurements. It’s really slowing me down.” And they said, “Fine.” As it turns out, they hung my paintings on a wall with a mural by Mendini. I took one look and it, and I thought it was so brilliant that I said, “Why should I be doing this, when I could get somebody like Alessandro Mendini to collaborate with me?”
Well, I can tell you this, Peter. I walked into that show at Mary Boone Gallery two years ago and, for the first time, had the experience of having the air sucked out of me. The collaboration was magnificent.
Jim, thank you, that means a lot to me. Very few people saw that show. But I have to say, it came out so well, and it was such an intense environment.
It’s not just me, it’s kind of like the Velvet Underground. We were talking about Brian Eno before, who once said that when the Velvet Underground’s first record came out, it sold 30,000 copies. But that everybody who bought it went out and started a band.
With Mendini, we had a gallery show in Italy, one or two smaller projects, the exhibition at Mary Boone, and finally a project at the Fondation Cartier. As much as I like working with everybody else, when I work with Alessandro Mendini, it is like how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards must feel. I know the guy is a genius, so naturally it comes out great. But it really is an amazing feeling to have that kind of creative rapport with another human.
That’s so great. I want to get back to talking about New York—what are your likes and dislikes about living in Manhattan today?
Ok. Well, first of all, I was always anti-Tribeca. I moved there about the time I had children. It was a practical place for an artist to live. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when artists originally moved to Soho and Tribeca, I thought it was a really bad thing, because in a way they were saying, “I am leaving the city and starting my own suburb, for my own exclusive community.” When I lived in the East Village in the early ‘80s, many people I was friends with lived there, too. We Visited galleries there. That’s much more of a model that appeals to me, in which artists are living and working in neighbourhoods with other people, unlike Chelsea.
So now we have a kind of fascinating situation. I have to say that to live in such a safe city, I think, is a real blessing.
Now the creative community has migrated primarily to areas in Brooklyn and Queens. When I go there, the first thing that strikes me is how horizontal it is.
I visited a friend’s studio the other day in an industrial part of Bushwick near the canal, and I could have sworn I was in LA. I mean, it was like one-storey and two-storey black buildings as far as I could see.
It’s a geographic shift. Those folks should be making different art than I would make.
In closing, as a working artist for 35 years, 40 years, how do you feel about your relationship to the place that you live, now that it has changed?
My relationship hasn’t changed so much. But I think it’s more difficult for younger artists to build the kind of communities we were able to experience when we were young because people are really spread out. And, with galleries being so commercial and competitive, artists have this idea that in order to succeed, they have to pitch what they do to the system rather than to each other. When I first came to New York, what was important to me was interviewing Richard Prince or having Barbara Kruger come to my studio—that was success. I felt that exhibiting and having a voice in the world would come out of those experiences, and it did. So I hope that for younger creative people, interacting with their peers, learning from them, and supporting them is still at the core of everything.