Peter Halley: The Elvis of Abstraction
'80s titan Peter Halley's current exhibition at Greene Naftali comes with some surprising bells and whistles, but does it offer anything genuinely new, or just a misjudged attempt at an Elvis-style comeback?
View of Peter Halley, Greene Naftali, New York, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York
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With his reputation and popularity in decline, no longer hip among the younger artists he inspired, with increasingly formulaic vehicles driving his brand, and not having performed before an audience in many years, Elvis Presley was, by 1968, in trouble. He had to get back on stage and attempt to recapture his former glory, not least to reassure backers of his future earnings potential. What has become known as the '68 comeback, a TV special mixing extravagant production numbers with the stripped down rock'-n'-roll that originally brought him fame, was a big risk, but ultimately a rousing success.
Nearly a half century later, two images, contradictory yet entwined, persist: Elvis, legs spread, wearing tight black leather, exuding sex and danger; and in a bright white suit, ELVIS spelled out in red lightbulbs behind him. Returning to his '50s roots would propel him into the '70s and toward his lucrative, highly choreographed Vegas era. That this Elvis memory would overtake us in Peter Halley's exhibition at Greene Naftali, his first with the gallery after a long tenure at Mary Boone, where he was a quintessentially '80s artist in an '80s-identified gallery, was and wasn't a surprise.
A third image manifested too, of Elvis belting out "Jailhouse Rock," Halley's prison bars and canary yellow walls serving as his fluorescent stage. This show is Halley's comeback, and while the comparison with a true American originator ends there, it's as lavish a production as that classic TV special. It is also very much of this moment, though in ways the artist is unlikely to appreciate. This is a time of empty spectacle and mass distraction, of shiny surfaces reflecting their owners' self-absorption, of art as a conduit for wealth, and of angry slogans: Build that Wall!
Looking back, 1968 was a year of global revolt, Vietnam, political assassinations. Even Andy Warhol was shot in his silver Factory. Warhol famously painted Elvis on a metallic silver ground, which is echoed by some of the walls at Greene Naftali. Undoubtedly one of Halley's heroes, Warhol is an artist whose acts of repetition were always shifting, while Halley stays the course. In 2017, he stages his paintings within an environment that recalls not only the Factory but also the dancefloor. One of his favorite songs is, or was, the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime." David Byrne sings, in his terse, trademark voice: "This ain't no party / this ain't no disco / This ain't no fooling around / This ain't no Mudd Club, or C.B.G.B. / I ain't got time for that now." The Mudd Club, the coolest spot of its time, was on White Street, the same street on which Halley lived in the '80s.
In the triangulation of club, song, and the passage of time, Halley's show might be an attempt to recapture a certain revelry, to rejuvenate a painting project that has been on instant replay for the past twenty-some years. With his tactics of distraction and a continuous recalibration of effects, all meant to bedazzle, we are led to wonder: With geometric abstraction, are there no second acts? Among Halley's post-'80s pronouncements was: "An artist is only hot once." This ups the temperature of Carl Andre's: "Every artist has one good idea," which parallels Halley's claim: "an artist only has one thing to say."
This doesn't apply to another hero of Halley's, Frank Stella, who's practically made a career of throwing wrenches into his own spokes. Halley's turn effortlessly, even as he may imagine that his late minimal baroque style and the installation gambits—plugged-in rooms, reflective wallpaper, and now music!—evince a restless, perverse streak. In the endless elaboration of a single idea, in its evasion of artistic responsibility, the opposite is true. His calculated disengagement has little to do with Stella, and maybe not even with Warhol. What he now has in common with Elvis is showmanship. In the hothouse staging of his comeback, Halley simulates exuberance, forever trapped in a day-glo prison. What happens after the yellow gels are removed from the lights and windows, and the gallery is painted back to white? The paintings must stand on their own. And how will they appear without the cheesy soundtrack that plays intermittently in the gallery? (There has been nothing so bizarre in an exhibition in recent memory.)
For all the bells and whistles in this diorama, Halley is, like any good showman, still playing the old familiar hits. What was relevant thirty years ago, however, no longer resounds. And yet younger artists, graphic designers, and curators respond enthusiastically. Some assume that the fiberglass wall relief in the courtyard—one of the show's best works—is new, though it dates from 1994. Ditto the explosion wallpaper. And in the show's last room, encountering themselves in a Robert Morris funhouse mirror from 1978, some took the work for Halley's own. In its warped reflection, Byrne's clipped diction returns: "Transmit the message / to the receiver."
For those who have never actually seen a Peter Halley show, their point of reference is Google image, the illuminated manuscript of our time. But fluorescence only exists in the here and now, and bling has a way of blinding all but the jaded. There is nothing new about these 2017 works except the date. Newer fans, all suitably impressed, when asked if the central room of paintings isn't simply production, can't quite disagree. Like the attractive, younger women strategically placed in Elvis's '68 audience, they constitute, for better or worse, the front row. After all, we live in an era of partial rather than total recall. Where history is concerned, simply scroll down and click: Unsubscribe.
Ultimately, Halley's show prompts the question: What does it mean to embrace rather than critique the society of the spectacle in this day and age? On the way out of the gallery, past the toxic chromatics of the paintings and the sci-fi Smithson room, another song came to mind, by Pavement, with a reference to "carbon-monoxide wallpaper," serving as the show's encore, "Conduit For Sale." Has Elvis left the building? He yet lingers by its freight elevator and the loading dock.
Bob Nickas is a writer and curator based in New York City.
Peter Halley is on view at Greene Naftali, New York, through October 21.