Biography

Piri Halasz has been and continues to be a journalist, art historian, educator and art critic. After distinguishing herself as a contributing editor and cover story author on Time magazine in an era when women writers on newsmagazines were rare, she moved on to write about art for Time.

Having familiarized herself with that subject, she found that she loved it more than she loved Time, so she quit the magazine, and went back to graduate school.

She has since carved out a second career for herself teaching and writing as an independent-- mostly (though not entirely) about art.

Shortly after she had received her doctorate in art history, she came up with a theory explaining how an abstract painting may be able to convey not just one meaning but many.

She published an article about this theory in Arts Magazine and has since described how she came to develop it in her book, A Memoir of Creativity: Abstract Painting, Politics & the Media, 1956-1908.

As present, she is primarily concerned with covering the art scene in and around New York for (An Appropriate Distance) From the Mayor's Doorstep, though she also ventures outside the Big Apple and has published in many other media.

She continues to maintain a strong interest in abstract painting, but doesn't limit herself exclusively to it: what appeals to her especially is art and artists that don't get as much publicity as -- in her opinion -- they deserve.

BASIC BIO

A native of Manhattan from a progressive background, Ms. Halasz earned her Phi Beta Kappa key while majoring in English literature at Barnard. She then worked at Time magazine for six years as a researcher, primarily in Canadian and business news, and for another six years as a writer.

As a writer on Time, she dealt with many subjects, including obituaries, celebrity gossip, books, life styles and world affairs. For most of that period, she was the only full-time woman contributing editor on the masthead.

Most notably, she wrote a cover story for Time in 1966 on “Swinging London.” Hotly controversial then, it has in the 21st century become accepted as a key document of the period, even by British historians.

(For a fuller version of that evolution, see the article Ms. Halasz published in 2015 in The Independent Scholar here.)

As a byproduct of the cover story, she was invited by Coward McCann to write A Swinger’s Guide to London. Published in 1967, it has since been reprinted by the Authors Guild as part of their "back in print" program.

Following the London cover, Ms. Halasz was assigned to the Art page for Time. She spent two-and-a-half years covering that subject for Time before she decided to leave and enter the freelance/​educational arena.

She took her PhD in art history from Columbia University, and has taught at Columbia, Hunter College, C. W. Post Center/​Long Island University, Molloy College on Long Island, and Bethany College in West Virginia.

She has also published more than two hundred hard-copy articles on a free lance basis, primarily on art, in The New York Times (New Jersey supplement), Smithsonian Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, ARTnews, Arts Magazine, Art in America, NY Arts, Archives of American Art Journal, and elsewhere.

Online, she has contributed to artcritical.com, Observer, and a gathering of the tribes.

Her own online column/​newsletter of art criticism and comment, (An Appropriate Distance) From the Mayor’s Doorstep, commenced publication in 1996.

Despite its title, the column has no official connection to the mayor of New York. One reason that Ms. Halasz chose that title was that when it began, she was living on East 88th Street in Manhattan, two doors down from Gracie Mansion -- the mayor's official residence.

However, the name also has a second level of meaning. Ms. Halasz thought that the circle of artists, critics, collectors, dealers and their friends and relations surrounding the late great art critic, Clement Greenberg, was like a little village within the larger art community.

"Clem" was like the mayor of that village. Hence locating her column "on the mayor's doorstep" was a way of saying that she intended to carry on with celebrating the kind of art he'd loved.

In 2009, Ms. Halasz published her Memoir of Creativity. The book shows how over the years and through this very varied background, she was able to develop her theory regarding abstract painting. For further, more personal information on the book & this theory, see the three separate sections below.

Ms. Halasz is on Facebook & Linked-In. She also belongs to the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), College Art Association, National Coalition of Independent Scholars, Mensa, Time-Life Alumni Association, and Editorial Freelancers Association.

Still living here in Manhattan, she enjoys theater, movies, charades, and bridge.

ABSTRACT PAINTING & MULTIREFERENTIAL IMAGERY
(A MORE PERSONAL VIEW)


I introduced my theory of multireferential imagery with the September 1983 issue of Arts Magazine, in an article entitled, "Abstract Painting in General; Friedel Dzubas in Particular."

I revised and expanded these original ideas in A Memoir of Creativity.

In essence, I argued (and continue to argue) that abstract painting is not non-representational, as most people think, but instead a new form of representation. The abstract image in a painting is ambiguous or “multi-referential,” but not haphazardly so.

Instead, it represents a combination of forms that the artist has seen in the external world, stored in her or his memory, and synthesized onto the picture plane (without realizing that s/​he was doing so).

A viewer may be reminded of different objects by this ambiguous image, most often depending on how her or his viewing experience corresponds to that of the artist.

Obviously, this correspondence will be greatest among viewers who are alive when the artist is, and whose surroundings correspond most nearly to those of the artist.

But no one perception is the ONLY right one, and all have some validity (if only to the second degree, meaning when the viewer is reminded of something that can at best be similar to what the artist would have seen).

Not all abstract art is equally multireferential, but to the extent that individual works may be, I argued -- and continue to argue -- that they remain the most radical form of the visual arts that we have.

Almost all the other, supposedly more "radical" art forms that have come along since & that I know of -- including pop art, conceptual art, most video and all performance art -- represent lapses back into the "uni-referential."

By this I mean works of art that in one way or another are as figurative as traditional representation, with only one prevailing idea to each image or element in the individual work.

The only popular exception to this preference for the uni-referential is minimal art. In my view, most minimal art represents a satirical (Duchampian) treatment of abstract art, dumbing it down to forms so simple (and simple-minded) that they refer to an altogether bafflingly huge series of objects seen in daily life.

(Duchamp hated the abstract art of his day, which he called "retinal" art. His various means of demeaning it (and art in general) by dreaming up provocative ways to re-introduce the uni-referential underlie today's whole "postmodernist" project.)

Since I introduced multireferential imagery in 1983, I've met with at least some people in my immediate circle who find the idea valid and even helpful in making abstract art more widely accessible (my original intention).

But there has also been widespread incomprehension and/​or resentment.

On a surface level, this appears to have much to do with the fact that my theory undermines the claims of so many supposedly more "radical" art forms to be as "radical" as their large and admiring public would like to think they are.

On the other hand, many observers far less (or not at all) committed to these popular art forms, and sometimes admirers of the same kinds of abstract art that I admire, still have difficulty with the theory -- either difficulty in grasping it or difficulty in accepting it (two different things).

With the people who like the same painting that I do, and don't like the theory, the problem seems to be that they just like the idea of a painting not depicting anything and prefer to go on thinking that way.

With the people who don't like my kind of painting anyway, the biggest problem appears to be the idea that the image on the picture plane represents something that the artist has seen, so that the image is in fact conveying a picture of something to the viewer (or sometimes, conveying different pictures to different viewers).

Somehow the idea that communication actually takes place between the abstract artist and the viewer is one that many observers can't face.

Another problem seems to be that an awful lot of people simply don't like ambiguity -- they have a deep underlying need to have everything reduced to the clear and simple.

Yet another problem, to the extent that "memory" can be equated to the Freudian unconscious, is the same problem that Freud also encountered--namely that few people are willing to admit that they aren't in complete control of themselves.

I believe they find it too frightening to admit that there are parts of their own psyches which keep them from doing whatever it is that they think they want to be doing, and -- even worse --make them do what they don't want to do.

It is largely this type of resistance that, in my opinion, has led to the current popular opinion that all of Freud's ideas are ridiculously out-of-date and should be altogether ignored in favor of neuroscience.

I am perfectly willing to admit that a) Freud wasn't perfect and b) neuroscience has the potential to explain mental processes with more scientific exactitude than he ever could.

However, from what I've seen so far, this potential is still very far from being realized.

I also have confidence that, with the aid of scientists like Dr. Mark Solms, who are committed to establishing a neurological basis for Freud's theories, in time even those neuroscientists most hostile to Freud will come to accept his ideas as largely if not entirely true (or at the very least, true in the context of his own era--he was, after all, very much a man of his own time).

SOCIOECONOMIC & POLITICAL THINKING

After years of being unable to make as much headway with my own theory of multireferential imagery as I felt it deserved, I decided that my best chance of enabling more people to grasp and accept it was to tell how I developed it from many personal and professional experiences.

That is how A Memoir of Creativity came into being in its final form, but while writing it, I also found myself re-creating a political and social context not only for my theory but for all the art that I'd encountered.

Thus the book incorporates much historical detail, often perceived through the mass-media environment that chronicled so much of this history initially.

It offers a few fresh (though doubtless very unpopular) thoughts about how the three most influential print media dealing with international news in the 1960s -- Time, Newsweek and the New York Times -- covered Vietnam and the protest against it.

Even more importantly, it offers an explanation for the course of recent art history based in non-Freudian psychology as well as socioeconomic factors, and it closes with a startling insight into the American electorate of the 21st century, an insight originally developed in the wake of 9/​11.

This last insight I called "the disenfranchised left."

In brief, I argued that the rightward drift in U.S. politics since 1950 could be explained by the occupational shift in the work force.

The white-collar population, which is constitutionally more likely to identify and sympathize with the wealthier classes (even if it isn't wealthy itself), has risen proportionately.

Proportionately, also, the blue-collar population has declined--and it is (or was) more likely to recognize its true (and more adversarial) relationship to the upper classes.

In 1950, 40 percent of the U.S. work force was white-collar (managerial, professional, sales, technical and clerical) and 60 percent was blue-collar or blue-collar type jobs and farmers (including menial service occupations).

In 2000, this proportion was exactly reversed, and the ratio has undoubtedly become far more lopsided in the many years since.

I think if I were revising this part of the book today I would have to say more about the lower-level service occupations, how large a percentage of the population they represent and whether or not they challenge my theory.

But the fact remains that the loss of so many manufacturing jobs to overseas operations decimated the labor unions and in so doing crippled the ability of the left in American society to fight back.

I suppose some of these blue-collar workers who were laid off because of foreign competition by the coal, steel, automotive or other "basic" industries qualify as working class.

But the politics of many of them are a far cry from what they would have been forty or fifty years ago, as the 2016 election made all too clear.

Possibly this is because many of such people represent what would have been the top income brackets within their job categories, and being older have also become more conservative with age. (Most people move to the right of the political spectrum in their later years -- I seem to be one of the exceptions.)

I would like to see more research done on just exactly where all these working-class people who voted Republican in 2016 would have fitted into the job hierarchy if they still had their original jobs -- if ever today's media could tear themselves away from fixating on every little burp that our President lets out.....

The problem with all those low-paid service workers -- today's underclass, from home health aides to baristas in Starbucks -- is that relatively few of them are organized.

This means nobody is around who can march them off to the polls and they cannot speak with a unified voice.

I believe there are many reasons for this, but again I don't know what they are -- and wish again that somebody would do more research here...

RECEPTION

A Memoir of Creativity has met with a large number of very encouraging personal responses, and even some sympathetic published reviews, posted here

Although these reviews, on the whole, don't evince too much sympathy with or even understanding of multireferential imagery, it does seem to have made some headway without them.

I have noted how one scholar-curator, John Elderfield, made reference to "generalized allusions to the external world" in his 2013 exhibition catalog for Gagosian on "Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959."

I have also noted how Karen Wilkin, in a press release for the 2014 exhibition of sculpture at Lori Bookstein by Willard Boepple, and presumably also in the book on Boepple by her published on the same occasion, made reference to constructi0ns which "at once evoke industrial artifacts and creatures able to move under their own power." This is a good example of multireferential imagery, and mentioned as such in the December 8, 2014, posting at this website.

Also I have noted how Paul Hayes Tucker, an art historian chosen to write the catalog for a Kenneth Noland exhibition at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in 2011, did his ham-handed best to integrate Noland into pop culture by reproducing the circular logo of Tide detergent, the logo of Chevron gasoline, and four other commercial designs to suggest that Noland had taken his "target" and "chevron" motifs from them.

Finally, I have noted how Robert S. Mattison, an art historian who organized a 2013 retrospective for Franz Kline, produced a fine catalog which far more subtly and persuasively found sources for Kline's abstractions in his family situation and also in the coal-and-steel town where he was raised.

(I dealt with the Frankenthaler, Kline and Noland catalogs at greater length in my blog post of January 19, 2014, "An Interlude with Some Catalogs)."

Doubtless, other scholars and critics may have also introduced similar ideas in recent years, most likely when dealing with artists I'm not particularly interested in, and hence appearing in books or articles with which I'm not familiar.

However, I did conduct an exhaustive search for such similarities in articles & books published by scholars and critics prior to 1983 while preparing A Memoir of Creativity.

Although even then, I found a good deal of interest in the "subject matter" of abstraction, plus miscellaneous references to "the unconscious" and "ambiguity," I didn't find anybody who had put them all together the way that I had (see pages 300-302 of the book, and its attendant footnote, pages 467-468).

In other words, I believe that my ideas, while pretty revolutionary in 1983, have become more widespread with the passage of time. Whether or not my own writing has played any role in this, I have no idea.