Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy - Prison with Conduit

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Image of Prison with Conduit

Peter Halley , b. Sep 24, 1953

Prison with Conduit

1981
54 in. x 36 in. (137.16 cm x 91.44 cm)

Medium and Support: Acrylic, Day-Glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas (two parts)
Credit Line: Gift of the artist (PA 1971), Addison Art Drive
Accession Number: 1991.12

Commentary

In a statement written after the realization of Prison with Conduit, Peter Halley declared, “Even though my work is geometric in appearance, its meaning is intended as antithetical to that of previous geometric art. Geometric art is usually allied with the various idealisms of Plato, Descartes, and Mies [van der Rohe]. My work, in fact, is a critique of such idealisms.”1 For all the seemingly formalist compositional rigor of Prison with Conduit, with its crisp delineation of a centralized square with bars and underlying lines, the painting, as Halley reveals, is for the most part a parody of aesthetic abstraction and the high-minded goal of modernists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, and Brice Marden to make art a transcendental, politically neutral affair.

Prison with Conduit is a pivotal work, part of a corpus of paintings that Halley embarked on in the early 1980s that sought to redefine the language of geometric art, to invest abstract painting with more localized or literal meaning. Halley has stated that “these are paintings of prisons, cells, and walls. Here, the idealist square becomes the prison. Geometry is revealed as confinement.”2 A metaphor for the failure of modernism, Halley’s work remains thoroughly disabused of any positivist desire to move art into the area of pure innovation, let alone convey some ineffable, elevated state of being. In fact, Prison with Conduit is an assertion of closure, the end point or rejection of an ongoing twentieth-century investment in science and its commercial spin-off, technology. Halley has claimed that “probably the chief disillusionment of the sixties is the failure of our belief in technology: by 1970, that kind of technological optimism is almost gone. The same is true with neo-plasticism and constructivism—they also posited both technology and rational geometry as an ideal that would allow society to rationally improve.”3

Through his extensive study of Structuralist and post-Structuralist thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and Guy Debord, Halley has located a body of thought that counters a still lingering faith in progress by considering aspects of our culture previously deemed marginal, or outside the schema of traditional intellectual inquiry. His paintings, with their Day-Glo colors and Roll-a-Tex surfaces, are a clear reference to popular culture, an area deemed, at least until the advent of Pop art, as too trivial to admit into the canon. That Halley fuses his psychedelic palette and industrial-type textures with geometric shapes is a sign of an interest in reempowering art with specific narrative content. What he has in mind is some simulation of the “diagrammatic spaces,”4 as he refers to them, that although hidden, map the organizational structures of society. The black lines that appear beneath the square in Prison with Conduit are demarcations of the invisible wires, tubing, pipes, connectors, or conduits that make up the substrata of our denaturalized, postmodern life.

However visually concealed these elements are within our culture, Halley believes that the meaning of his work can be intuitively grasped by any viewer:

I strongly believe in making art that can be looked at quickly. We live in a society of informational and cultural overload. The idea of a Cezanne, for example, which you can study for hours and various nuances are revealed, seems very out of touch at least with my psychic life. I want to make something explosive and immediate. And hopefully explosive and immediate each time you go by and take a quick look at it.5

Debra Bricker Balken, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts, 1996), pp. 383-84


1. Peter Halley, “Statement (1983),” in Peter Halley, Collected Essays, 1981-87 (Zurich: Bruno Bischofberger Gallery, 1988), p. 25.

2. Halley, “Notes on the Paintings (1982),” ibid., p. 22.

3. Quoted in Giancarlo Politi, “Peter Halley,” Flash Art, no. 150 (January/February 1990), p. 82.

4. Ibid., p. 84.

5. Kathryn Hixon, “Interview with Peter Halley,” in Peter Halley: Oeuvres de 1982 à 1991 (Bordeaux: Musée d’art contemporain, 1991), p. 30.

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