Peter Halley’s work is distinctive—once you’ve seen a few Peter Halleys you can easily pick them out. Buying into this perception to a certain extent, the “paintings” tab of his website has an “overview” option. If a visitor to his site so desires, he or she can literally scroll through his entire oeuvre to see how Halley has reworked his simple iconography of squares, rectangles, and lines over the course of his career, steadily embracing a neon DayGlo palette. However, his “Artists at the Institute” lecture at the IFA on February 2nd provided insight into the profoundly thoughtful artist behind the paintings. Indeed, his highly individual style is a hermetic rumination on subject matter close to his heart: How to cope with the isolation of modern life and find human connection, particularly in New York City.
Halley began his lecture by discussing his move to New York City in 1980 and a linchpin piece, The Grave, that helps unlock the iconographical implications of his work. The minimalist painting depicts a stark whitish rectangle resting on a black ground with a sickly yellow background. The isolation of death comes through clearly. Looking back at this work from 32 years ago, Halley revealed that the piece’s deadpan style harbors a “touch of emotional depression.” It is hard not to imagine that the painting bespeaks the profound loneliness of a transplanted artist amidst the bustling, crowded streets of New York.