Peter Halley: Blocks

West Barn

June 17-July 17, 2021

For its inaugural show, The Ranch is proud to present an exhibition of eight new paintings by Peter Halley. These luminous, human-sized color blocks are inspired by the artist’s interest in Hans Hofmann’s late-period experiments with color and geometry.

At the root of Hofmann’s ideas are the ways in which color comes forward and recedes in compositions, giving the illusion of depth through placement and hue. This, Hofmann called “the push and pull.” The art historian Irving Sandler wrote that Hofmann “was utterly convinced that the universe ‘works.’ As its metaphor, painting could be made to ‘work.’ And thus reveal physical and spiritual reality… Yet as much as his colors are opulent, they are also strong, dissonant, and juxtaposed in jarring combinations – to avoid decoration and challenge taste – but they are rarely tragic.” Which is to say, it was not for Hofmann to dramatize his process or his output. His paintings were about color, and thus the world. Years later, on the cusp of the new millennium Peter Halley wrote: “It is my belief that, as our cognitive becomes more and more two-dimensional as a result of computers and other technology, color plays an ever more central role in coding this two-dimensional world.”

There are similar impulses here: both artists use paint to explore how the world and painting function. Separated by generations, Hofmann sought a direct connection to the infinite, while Halley is looking at the mediated world. Both share an interest in making color work on the viewer, often through “garish” hues and keys. Halley tells himself that he is not making abstract paintings, but rather pictures of abstract paintings, that his interest is treating Hofmann as a genre the way he might treat the idea of a “landscape.” In doing so, he’s made paintings that depend entirely on the careful orchestration of color, surface, and tone so that the dance of light between the color rectangles never stops. To stand in front of a Halley “Block” is to experience the pleasantly dizzying effect of an eternal motion machine.

Halley’s move here is reminiscent of a 1958 record by the Everly Brothers: Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Back in the late 1950s the duo had hits like “Cathy’s Clown” and “Wake Up Little Susie,” but these were country boys who the decade before appeared on their father Ike’s radio show singing folk and country standards. And so in ’58 they stripped it down and made their own versions of standards from the 1600s to 1950 that they’d grown up with in Iowa. As against the-then popular notions of “authenticity,” they were not harkening back to the world of Daddy Ike, who was a coal miner by age 14, but offering modern(ist) arrangements of songs that emerged from the tangled roots of American song.

For Peter Halley, Daddy might be a big-boned and loud German as against our man’s slight build and soft-spoken New York Catholic/Jewish blend. But Daddy knows paint and color, and young Peter has learned. Halley isn’t evoking the high-flown ideas of the burly German exile, but having absorbed the lessons of his modern relatives, he’s created an entirely twenty-first century mode of creation. In front of these canvases we can see the tunes of Halley’s forbearers, but when he plays the song, something else emerges. His immaculate surfaces and strict lines spring to life, enlivening, delighting, and decoding themselves, and us, too. In finding a new tradition for himself, Halley has transcended it. These glowing Blocks offer a new way to see, feel, and experience color.

Following this exhibition, the works presented will form part of a monographic exhibition of Peter Halley at Dallas Contemporary curated by executive director Peter Doroshenko.

Artist Biography:

Peter Halley, born in 1953, is an American artist who came to prominence as a central figure of the Neo-Conceptualist movement of the 1980s. His paintings employ the language of geometric abstraction to explore the organization of social space in the digital era. Since the 1990s, he has also focused on site-specific installations which combine wall-sized digital prints and other elements with his paintings. Halley is known for his essays, written in the 1980s and 1990s, which explored the influence of burgeoning digital technology on art and culture. From 1996 to 2005, Halley published INDEX magazine, which included in-depth interviews with creative people in a variety of fields. He served as Director of Graduate Studies in Painting at the Yale University School of Art from 2002 to 2011. Halley’s work has been exhibited extensively around the world. In 2022, the Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (Mudam), Luxembourg, will present a survey of Peter Halley’s paintings from the 1980s. Recent solo exhibitions include the Lever House Art Collection, New York, NY, 2018; the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, Germany, 2016; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA 2015; the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Saint-Étienne, France, 2014.

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