Ellen and Dennis Schweber, New York
Galerie Andrea Caratsch, St. Moritz
Private Collection, Switzerland
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Cory Reynolds, Ed., Peter Halley: Maintain Speed, New York 2000, p. 201, illustrated in colour
Peter Halley, ‘The Crisis in Geometry’, in: Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 58, No. 10, June 1984, online.
Bold in palette, rigorous in its formal language, and rich in theoretical concept, Peter Halley’s Yellow Cell with Triple Conduit is a powerful display of the artist’s post-modern geometric abstraction. Created in 1986 – the very same moment that Halley came to prominence as part of the Neo-Conceptualist artists of the mid-1980s – this painting is the sister work of Blue Cell with Triple Conduit, which resides in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and shares the same euphoric fluorescence and formal structure as the present piece.
In Yellow Cell with Triple Conduit, a strong acidic yellow ‘cell’ is framed by two fields of pink and orange neon hues that are perfectly dissected by geometric lines, or ‘conduits’, contoured in bold, contrasting colour. In his use of fluorescent pigment, Halley was inspired by the day-glo colours of Frank Stella’s Moroccan Series of 1964-65. However, while Halley deliberately cites the pantheon of Modernist painting, the chromatic choices, formal vocabulary, and textured surfaces of his own work are ultimately informed by an observation of societal structures and their environments. Since the early 1980s, Halley’s reductive images have appropriated geometry as a reflection of social, rather than formal, space; thus Halley took on the pictorial vocabulary and intellectual theories of Modernism whilst simultaneously inverting its inward-looking hermeticism. Demonstrating these complex relationships via a visually arresting abstract language, the present work sits at the cusp of Halley’s seminal 1980s output; the moment at which he postulated a new form of geometric abstraction to redefine the parameters of abstract painting.
Although contextualised by the urban environment of his native New York, Halley’s paintings surpass the specific or quotidian and instead illuminate a broader cultural discourse. Reflecting on his own paintings and emphasising their relationship between computer technology and contemporary social structures, Halley explains: “In my work, space is considered as just such a digital field in which are situated ‘cells’ with simulated stucco texture from which flow irradiated ‘conduits’. This space is akin to the simulated space of the videogame, of the microchip, and of the office tower – a space that is not a specific reality but rather a model of the ‘cellular space’ on which ‘cyberneticized social exchange’ is based, which ‘irradiates the social body with its operational circuits’” (Peter Halley, ‘The Crisis in Geometry’, in: op. cit.). His amalgamation of organigrams, computer and urban structures are translated visually via a rigorous, abstract geometry that is entrenched in the art historical tradition of Modernist painting. Halley appropriates the history of geometric abstraction via the formal language of such artists as Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky, through to Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko; however, his use of these precedents is deftly couched in the cynicism and ironic tone of postmodernism. As critic Alex Coles has suggested, “Halley made use of Duchampian strategies such as appropriation: but then paradoxically translated them into painting” (Alex Coles, ‘Dazzling Mailboxes: Peter Halley’s New Paintings’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Waddington Galleries, Peter Halley Paintings, 2001, p. 6).
Halley’s rectilinear forms are deliberately reminiscent of engineering diagrams, corporate flow charts, and the blueprints of prisons and clinics. As laid out in the artist’s seminal essay 'The Crisis of Geometry' – published in Arts Magazine, New York, only two years before the present work was made – Michel Foucault was a significant influence on Halley’s thinking. In Foucault’s definitive book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, first published in English in 1977, the philosopher suggests that prison forms part of a larger network that comprises schools, military institutions, hospitals, and factories, all of which build a panoptic society for its members and, ultimately, create a structure of surveillance, discipline, and dependency via geometric space. The circulatory pathways and the omnipresent straight lines of the industrial landscape, Foucault argues, facilitates and contains orderly movement. The title of the present work – Yellow Cell with Triple Conduit – emphasizes the link between institutional incarceration, social isolation and interaction, and the mathematical discipline of geometry. Minimalism’s claim to intellectual neutrality through an abstract language of angles, lines, and curves is thus unravelled and overturned by Halley’s own abstract dialogue. The now iconic ‘Cell’ paintings – as wonderfully exemplified by the present work – are thus purposefully conceived in glowing, fauve neon colours, to strikingly visualise the power structures of modern-day society; ultimately Halley reveals how geometry is utilised as a societal tool of power and control.
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