Interview with Tom McGlynn

Interview with Tom McGlynn

Tom McGlynn for The Brooklyn Rail - 3 Oktober 2018

Since the early 1980s the influence of Peter Halley’s writings, paintings, and installations has been widespread. He makes what he terms “diagrammatic images,” which delineate the hyperreal circulatory feedback loop of contemporary social and political culture. On the day after the opening of his new installation project, New York, New York at Lever House in Midtown Manhattan, I spoke with Halley in his Chelsea studio.

Tom McGlynn (Rail): I recall the first time I ever encountered an image of one of your paintings. It was printed on a press release for an early show—circa 1985—at International with Monument, which was located on East 7th Street. In the midst of the foment of Neo-Expressionist figuration that dominated both the Soho and East Village art scenes, I was struck by the pared down, classical geometry of the painting—but perhaps even more so by how the image resonated on an emotional and psychological level as substantially insubstantial. There were not a whole lot of other painters painting that way then. Even now your body of work constitutes a fairly idiosyncratic thread in the tradition of abstraction. What was the development of your work prior to that time?

Halley: There’s no doubt that I have a predisposition to paint flat paintings that emphasize color. By the time I was in graduate school in New Orleans, the emphasis was already on geometry. My earlier work from the late seventies embraced a romantic approach to world culture that was current in the art world at the time. In the wake of the radicalism of the sixties, there was a widespread attitude that Western culture was hopelessly corrupt and irrelevant. A number of artists were looking for sources of meaning outside the modern West. I myself was mostly looking at Native American art, Islamic art, and African art. In all those traditions, I saw geometry used to describe the essential codes of the natural world. The formal language I was developing was surprisingly similar to what I do now, but the meaning I was giving to geometric form was diametrically different. When I moved back to New York in 1980—it was a bit like Buddha leaving the palace. I was suddenly confronted with this Post-Structuralist critical wave engulfing intellectual life in the US. I soon discovered the work of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, and others. From Foucault, I gained the insight that any attempt to borrow from a culture outside one’s own is impossible. Your interpretation will always be filtered through your own cultural lens. The only way to have any claim to critical rigor is to focus on your own culture. Landing in downtown New York, I suddenly understood that my obsession with geometry was coming from this complex built environment, from the way the spaces around me were organized.

Rail: I recall the so-called Pattern and Decoration movement in the late seventies, championed by the dealer Holly Solomon. Artists such as Valerie Jaudon and Kim MacConnel represented that trend. Was that what you were referring to earlier?

Halley: Yes, among other things—like first generation feminism practiced by artists like Miriam Schapiro.

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Portrait of Peter Halley, pencil on paper by Phong Bui