PRINT November 1978

Blinky Palermo: Objects, “Stoffbilder,” Wall Paintings

WHEN BLINKY PALERMO1 MOVED from Düsseldorf to New York in 1974, three years before his death at the age of 34, he had already created a highly significant body of work. While far from being well known in the United States, Palermo’s art of 1964–1974, made while he was still a very young artist, is central to any consideration of artistic concerns and innovations, in Europe and America both, after 1965.

In a brief time span Palermo’s work took different forms. During the later 1960s and early 1970s Palermo’s ideas resulted in distinct and separate kinds of work, which, in terms of the artist’s development, overlap each other in time. Works that have been classified as “Objects” can be dated to 1964: the first Stoffbild, or “fabric painting,” was made in the summer or fall of 1966: and at the end of 1968 Palermo realized his first wall drawing. In 1974 he began the series of metal paintings that was to concern him in the last years of his life. Meanwhile, he continued to create “Objects” until 1974 and Stoffbilder until 1972, and the last piece relating to an architectural space was seen at the Venice Biennale of 1976.2 So an examination of the individual “Objects,” the Stoffbilder, and the wall drawings and paintings will lead to an understanding of the radical nature of Palermo’s ideas in the context of the late 1960s.

Palermo’s first paintings mixed abstract and figurative shapes indeterminately—including heads, flowers, cuplike forms. One observes an attempt to contend with the license of arbitrary and spontaneous forms and structures inherited from Surrealism. For example, Gerhard Storck has pointed out that in an untitled canvas of 1962 Palermo painted a surprisingly definite linear demarcation around a squared-off centralized figural scene.3 By separating the background of the picture from the already existing image with an additional line, Palermo clearly referred to the background as an area in and of itself.

Within the next two years Palermo expressed his underlying awareness of the background more explicitly. Paintings of 1964–65 suggest the intent to cover a two-dimensional surface uniformly, while the haphazard arrangement of 8 Red Squares, 1964, avoids specific compositional relationships. A painting entitled Straight ’65 with an overall grid pattern formed by red, yellow and blue lines and small, equal-sized and equally spaced squares opens the question as to whether the “foreground” or “background” takes visual priority, or just which is which.

Palermo created his first “Object” while he was still painting rectangular pictures on canvas. The word “Object” was used at the time of Palermo’s solo exhibition “Objekte 1964–1972” at the Städtisches Museum in Mönchengladbach in 1973, as an overall heading to describe one category of his work. According to Dr. Johannes Cladders, the director of the museum, who organized the exhibition, Palermo first had thought of designating the term “Bild-Objekt” (Picture-Object) for this purpose but later decided on the less cumbersome label.4 The works which have been classified as Objects possess an unusual appearance in view of their material, color and shape. Chronologically, they follow immediately after Palermo’s earliest paintings of 1962–63. In an untitled work of 1964, he attached five small canvases with blue triangular shapes pointing upward onto a narrow piece of wood 85 3/4 inches long, painted bright rust-orange. By dislodging these triangular forms from their possible existence together within a larger canvas, and by realigning them to function as independent, individual, but connected elements related to the wall, Palermo began to pry form away from its traditional compositional associations.

An early Object entitled Totes Schwein (Dead Pig), 1965, combines an actual piece of wooden door and a painting of a slaughtered pig. A swine on a spit presents a peculiar configuration as its outline does not match one’s familiar associations with the features of the living animal. While faithful to the experience of observing a real pig, Palermo also produced a strange but independently abstract form that continues onto the found piece of wood above. (The pastel, blue-green color of the painted canvas, moreover, acknowledges the space of the sky.) Both the juxtaposition of found object with painted canvas and the conjunction of real and independent forms anticipate the more fully developed and original ideas of Palermo’s later, really innovative work.

After 1965 Palermo removed the restrictions of two-dimensionality, in some cases, or of rectilinearity, in others, as conditions for his painting. In this way form is freed from a dependence on a background and comes to have an existence in and of itself. The process of transformation is understood from works of 1965. Still totally two-dimensional, the Objects nonetheless circumvent the traditional picture format. With their long and narrow proportions and, in each case, their slightly irregular shape, they represent a transition from painting into object.

The Objects of the second half of the 1960s assume various forms. As the title suggests, Kissen mit Schwarzer Form (Cushion with Black Shape), 1967, resembles an upright cushion: made of foam rubber covered with cloth and attached to the wall, it is painted a red rust color on its rounded, outer edges and bright orange on its rectangular face. A curvilinear black painted shape cuts eccentrically through the center. Stuffed like a pillow, but richly imbued with brushwork, Kissen is an object whose presence is painterly and tactile. The strong black shape on the surface of the cushion is given autonomy which it would not have in the context of a two-dimensional canvas, existing as it does on the surface of a concrete, tangible object and not as a form on the surface of a picture plane: superimposed on a protruding object instead, its flatness “stands out” in contrast. On a similar cushionlike object, Tagtraum (Daydream), from 1965, Palermo depicted a black triangle with instructions for an identical black wooden triangle to be hung on the wall a few inches to the right on the same level as its painted twin. Incorporated on the irregular, stuffed and painterly object’s surface, the triangle is perceived as an isolated form, while the juxtaposed and literally separate triangle reinforces and comments on this fact.

In his now famous essay of 1965, “Specific Objects,” Donald Judd articulated his view of the limitations of painting:

The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape: it determines and limits the arrangements of whatever is on or inside of it. . . . Except for a complete and unvaried field of color marks, anything spaced in a rectangle and on a plane suggests something in and on something else, something in its surround, which suggests an object or figure in its space, in which these are clearer instances of a similar world—that’s the main purpose of painting. . . . Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors. . . . Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.5

Frank Stella had in 1958 already begun to take measures to eliminate illusionistic effects in painting and to eradicate distinctions between the background surface and something figured on it. He later acknowledged that “any painting is an object, and anyone who gets involved enough in this finally has to face up to the objectness of whatever it is that he is doing.”6 Simultaneously with Stella’s and Judd’s thoughts about painting in the mid-’60s, Palermo was exploring the means of presenting painting as an immediate visual idea by removing the interference of illusory space.

Palermo’s later Objects conscientiously avoided rectilinearity as well as the straightforward application of paint onto a flat canvas. Schmetterling (Butterfly), 1967, is a long, vertical piece. In length 81 7/8 inches and 7 1/16 inches at its widest point, at the bottom, it narrows at the top to a width of only 2 5/16 inches. Canvas is wrapped around wood and nailed at the back, giving the work its slightly rounded edges and depth of 1 3/8 inches. The surface, defined by a dark olive green color, contains minor though apparently intentional imperfections and roughness in the paint. The surface extends just over the edges onto brightly painted orange sides. Visible from one viewpoint at a time, the sides reinforce the dark materiality of the surface by the contrast of their orange glow.

Schmetterling II, 1969, is similarly constructed and colored, but conceived as two separate parts. A long, thin, irregular, vertical shape almost touches a decidedly irregular, polygonal form placed high on the wall to its left. The Objects are often constructed in two parts with a narrow, vertical element accompanied by an arbitrarily geometric or amorphously organic shape alongside: Tagtraum II, 1966, just such a painting, is constructed out of a wooden “T” and an unspecific rounded shape, both covered with beige and purple silk and thickly painted in uneven areas of white, violet, black and orange. Painterly, abstract areas and forms are depicted on the surface of the rounded shape. An untitled Object of 1967 on loan to the Neue Galerie, Staatliche Kunstmuseum, Kassel, is a simple “T” form. Its stem is fashioned from a rough piece of salvaged wood and painted white, while the bar of the “T” consists of painted white canvas wrapped around the wood. Three red triangular shapes of varying sizes point inward from the three outer extensions of the T. The paint has an absorbent, liquid appearance.

The Objects are constructed in a manner which enhances their concrete reality as painted surfaces. The quality of applied paint and its use in the creation of forms are conveyed within the context of form itself. Instead of containing the form on a two-dimensional surface, the format of the painting is a form itself. Canvas is used as a material substance, just as cloth or wood is interchanged with canvas.

While working on the Objects, Palermo embarked on the series of fabric paintings or “cloth pictures” known as Stoffbilder. The Stoffbilder are fabricated, quite literally, from commercially available bolts of cloth purchased from department stores in the desired colors.7 In a recent exhibition, “Stoffbilder 1966–1972,” in the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, 56 were found to exist and are documented in the catalogue. A few cloth pictures had been shown in Palermo’s first one-man exhibition in 1966, which was held that spring in Munich. Although these particular pieces were destroyed by the artist afterwards, Palermo’s wife at the time, Ingrid Kohlhöfer, recalls that he went to the clearance sales later that summer to buy more yard goods as these works were to continue to occupy him for the following six years.8

Unlike the Objects, the Stoffbilder have pristine surfaces and are rectangular and two-dimensional rather than irregularly shaped. The purchased fabric is attached tightly to a stretcher and neatly stitched together with a sewing machine in order to create smooth, separate fields of solid color, horizontally placed one above the other in two, or sometimes three, broad bands. Only two works exist in which the colors are arranged vertically. With the exception of early or experimental pieces employing satin or silk and also with the exception of white fabrics such as muslin or linen, the Stoffbilder are made with a matte cotton yardage whose surface texture and weave do not distract from their communication of color. The colors used in combination over the years are those which theoretically could be matched in nature, as opposed to colors of an industrial or exotic character.

The Stoffbilder are often square in format, though not exclusively, generally measuring 78 3/4 inches square. The standard width of fabric, which in Europe is usually 31 1/2 inches, determines the maximum possible width of each area of color. These separate sections of cotton are not necessarily evenly proportioned, and individual bands of color are rarely the same size as one another, since Palermo decided their dimensions by eye and not by any system of measurement. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of colors is intuitive rather than overtly scientific: the Stoffbilder seem not directly concerned with pointing out or analyzing color relationships. Each color stands on its own in differentiation from, though harmonious with, its neighbor.

Color in the Stoffbilder is “found” and predetermined, purchased by the artist according to what was manufactured and currently available. As Palermo superimposed commercially produced fabrics onto the traditional, two-dimensional framework of painting, he eliminated steps in the usual painting process to create new pictorial results. The substitution of expanses of dyed cotton fabrics tautly fastened to a frame totally identifies color with its format. Inseparable from its material and from its format as well, color is thus freed from being experienced for any reason other than its visual presence. Colors in the Stoffbilder, like form in the Objects, function as themselves. Identified as they are with their format and not subordinate to it, the rectangular areas of color assume independent meaning.

The Stoffbilder have been mistakenly considered derivations of the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly because of the superficial similarity of the large, simple, contiguous fields of color. Kelly’s painting, however, is founded on the very premise which Palermo’s work redefines. The flat surface of the canvas is a crucial factor in Kelly’s treatment of color and shape. Colors used in juxtaposition to define large flat areas of form neither advance nor recede; and the importance of Kelly’s painting lies in the fact that color and form avoid illusionistic spatial relationships. Kelly’s work expresses the reality of flatness while maintaining and relying on the fiction of the canvas confines. Like Kelly’s paintings, the Stoffbilder are identified with the reality of flatness, but they abandon the fictional construct of a painted two-dimensional area by their appropriation of found colored fabric. The existence of a surface onto which paint can be added or subtracted is denied and the painting is conceived of as an “object.”

The wall drawings and paintings that Palermo executed consistently from the end of 1968 through the early 1970s are a logical extension of the ideas underlying the Objects and the Stoffbilder. These were made in connection with temporary exhibitions, and occasionally for a private home. They no longer exist, but Palermo’s own documentation for some 23 projects was recently on view in Munich. Preserved in a private collection that was given to the owner by Palermo in 1975, this material contains Palermo’s finished drawings for each wall painting, as well as photographs of the completed pieces, and serves as a singular record of what he accomplished.

For an exhibition which opened in December of 1968, Palermo used the three rooms of the Friedrich Gallery, Munich, to draw a series of “open,” “closed” and “divided” linear and geometric forms. He drew directly on the walls with a reddish-brown oil crayon, creating outlined forms by abstracting the linear elements based on the figure “5.” These configurations adhered to a uniform size, two meters (about six feet) high and one meter in width, except a square, which was two meters on each side. The forms were repeated in a continuous series and were evenly spaced, one meter apart. Starting at a hand’s breadth to the side of one doorway and running clockwise, the sequence was interrupted by the entrance and windows of the gallery. So the limits of the specific walls, and the layout of the three rooms of the gallery, were determinants of the forms drawn.

Wall drawings and paintings were conceived in several different ways. The wall drawings made for the Galerie Ernst, Hannover, in 1969, the Lisson Gallery, London, in 1970, the Atelier, Mönchengladbach, in 1970–71; and for the house of Franz Dahlem in Darmstadt in 1971, are all similar in approach. Palermo’s written proposal for the Lisson Gallery stipulates: “A white wall with a door at any place surrounded by a white line of a hand’s breadth. The wall must have right angles. The definite form of the line is directed to the form of the wall.” Needless to say, because of the different locations of the door with respect to the wall and the different wall formations, each of the drawings resulting from this procedure yielded unique results, and formerly blank wall areas acquired independent form. Similarly, in 1971 Palermo painted opposite but identical walls of the Friedrich Gallery, Munich, by following the outline of the rectangular wall elevation and door. One wall was painted white, outlined by a strip the width of a hand in ochre, while the other, in reverse, was painted ochre and outlined in white. The surface of the wall clearly functioned as the support for the painting, and the outline took its shape from the given architectural setting with which it was fused.

If form coincided with the walls of an existing structure in certain works, in others architectural form occurs transposed. For a piece entitled Treppenhaus I, 1970, in the Konrad Fischer Gallery, Düsseldorf, Palermo painted a form which was produced by the projection of a stairway profile. The surface of the wall on one side of the gallery became the background for what is experienced as an independent, abstract shape, but one derived from the form of an actual staircase. Employing the same principle, Palermo produced two wall paintings, Fenster I (Window), 1970, and Fenster II, 1971. For the first, made in Bremerhaven, Palermo appropriated the structural outline of the mullions for the glass entranceway to the Kabinett für Aktuelle Kunst, where the exhibition was held, and exactly rendered this shape on the surface of the wall inside. The dark gray abstract form which he painted in the underground passageway of the Munich Maximilianstrasse, in 1971, likewise came from window mullions.

On other occasions, however, form is realized in situ, as with Treppenhaus II, 1971, in which Palermo painted the area between the hand railing and the steps of the Frankfurter Kunstverein’s staircase. The inconspicuous gray demarcated and revealed the given shapes in a definite but subtle way. Similarly, but with different results, for “Dokumenta V” in 1972, Palermo appropriated the space of the first floor landing in the staircase of the Museum Fridericianum at Kassel, which he painted with Bleimennige, an orange rust preventative undercoating, which he often used and which was well suited to his careful considerations of color effect. The emphatic orange set off the enclosed wall area as an over-life-size rectangle that, viewed from different points, could also be seen as an irregular polygon. Palermo neither originated the form nor imposed it on a secondary surface; by covering the rectangular area with paint, he “uncovered” the work of art, revealing a preexisting form in the given architectural context. An inseparability of actual and painted space, not the rectangle’s large scale and striking color, alone gave the work its impact.

Palermo often took advantage of the full context of space, not simply the flat wall areas within it. In the large exhibition room of the Baden-Baden Kunsthalle, in 1970, he painted a thin encircling blue stripe beneath an ornate molding on the wall just below the ceiling: the surrounding space as a whole, therefore, joined with the encircling painted form. At the Edinburgh College of Art, in 1970, Palermo utilized the space above a perfectly square staircase by painting each of its four sides respectively red, yellow, blue and white: here again, form evolves out of, and in response to, the dictates of architectural space.

The dialogue between space and form is emphasized and clarified by works in which Palermo altered the space three-dimensionally. In one room of the Galerie Ernst, Hannover, in 1969, he stretched two orange-yellow bands of linen on the side of the room between the junction of wall and ceiling, and, diagonally, on the other side, between wall and floor. The two-dimensional cross-section of the three-dimensional interior assumed an irregular polygonal shape, the entire room becoming an object. For one of his last wall paintings, in 1973, Palermo painted the freestanding wall partitions of the Hamburger Kunsthalle a red oxide. That exhibition caused a public outcry and was closed after one week: even by that date the idea of treating the wall area as the painting itself was not understood.

Palermo’s work marks another step in the history of the artistic developments in which painting has continued to raise questions about its relation to observed reality in the broadest sense. A piece from 1973, created for the living room of a private collector, links the ideas of the Objects with those of the wall paintings. Three narrow, rectangular vertical wooden objects, covered with painted linen, centered between the sofa and the ceiling, are installed equidistantly from each other to divide the wall into four equal sections. Each of the three objects is painted a separate color: the left bright orange, the center white, and the right bright blue. The wall area sustains the objects, which, in turn, give life to the wall. As objects and wall are inseparable in the resulting work of art, the totality is construed as a painting with a new spatial presence. Thus in the Objects and Stoffbilder, form and color are freed from their enclosure within the previous mental and physical boundaries of an intermediate flat surface and are allied with the space occupied by the wall, while the wall drawings and paintings extend the boundaries of art to coincide with actual space as defined by the wall. The wall replaces the traditional support of painting so that fiction and reality can merge.

Because of its concurrence with the selected elements of the existing architecture, form in Palermo’s wall drawings and paintings acquires a renewed credibility. The expansion of the fictitious boundaries of the work of art to encompass the surrounding walls—not in itself a new practice—afforded Palermo another opportunity to liberate form from its traditional subordination to a compositional whole. A group of forms consisting of a black square, a green scalene triangle, a blue isosceles triangle and a gray cloud-shaped oval represents yet another aspect of Palermo’s treatment of form. A series of four silkscreen prints separately illustrating these shapes, entitled Four Prototypes, was issued in 1970. As the title implies, the series suggests an archetypal set of possible shapes, symmetrical or asymmetrical, geometric like the triangle or free-hand like the oval, with regular or irregular edges. Based on earlier, painted forms, the “Prototypes” also exist in limited editions as individual objects (although the green triangle was never made). The small size of these multiples is striking. The square, for example, measures 6 by 6 by 6 inches, while the cloud is 5 1/8 by 10 1/2 by 3/4 inches. Made for placement directly on the wall, they are experienced as isolated, miniature shapes which punctuate the space around them, calling attention to the encompassing wall area: the surrounding space is drawn within the perimeters of the work of art.

Because of their miniature scale and their direct relationship with the wall, the “Prototype” multiples coincidentally resemble work by Richard Tuttle, who has also worked in small scale and with free, isolated form. Palermo and Tuttle could not have known about each other’s work until later in their contemporaneous careers, and the similar aspects of their work result from different emphases. Whereas Palermo’s few shapes aim at typicality, Tuttle’s more numerous ones are each specifically atypical. Tuttle’s shapes evidence an examination of the many possible definitions that an isolated form can have, in view of shape, structure, material, color or spatial placement. The difference is one of degree as well since Palermo’s prototypes comprise only a small portion of his work.

Like other artists who around 1965 independently began to reach similar, if distinct, conclusions in both painting and sculpture, Palermo recognized the need to reconsider previous ideas concerning the function and definition of form. Palermo had entered the Düsseldorf Academy of Art in 1962, at the age of 18. Exposure to the work of his first instructor, Bruno Goller, presented him with formal configurations derived from Cubism and Surrealism. Goller’s work reveals the source and possible inspiration for the prototype shapes, while it also pinpoints the basic difference between Palermo’s approach to painting and that of his precursors. The paintings of Goller lead one into a fragmented world of floating forms and images, one in which human figuration and abstraction are combined. Small cloud shapes, isosceles triangles and squares are commonly found in Goller’s work, ornamentally subordinate to the overall painting structure. These shapes, which emerge later in Palermo’s work, are extracted and fastened in the literal space of the world outside the canvas.

The teaching of Joseph Beuys at the Academy was undoubtedly a strong factor in the development of Palermo’s ideas. After his studies with Goller, Palermo became one of the notable students of Beuys for the following years, up until 1967. As Beuys’ student Palermo must have become aware of the possibility of treating form in isolation. The special role which Beuys attributed to form, clearly spelled out in published interviews, related to his personal view of the function of art. Beuys offers an art to serve the human condition, and his ideas about art are inseparable from his thoughts about the state of society and of mankind. Believing that it is “necessary to present something more than mere objects,”9 Beuys, as a sculptor, defines sculpture in its broadest sense—this was made possible by Duchamp—to embrace a range of materials and objects, and to include all aspects of human activity which might better the human lot. He has stated that “making art is a means for working for man in the area of thought,”10 and that “thought is represented by form.”11 So form, for Beuys, is equated with thinking. And within his work he uses viscous or pliable materials having a certain shock value, such as fat or beeswax, since they can be molded from an amorphous state into shape, as in metaphorical analogy with the process of thought. The Fettecke (Fat Corner), as Beuys has termed it, plays a major role in his work: “Fat in liquid form distributes itself chaotically in an undifferentiated fashion until it collects in a differentiated form in a corner. Then it goes from the chaotic principle to the form principle, from will to thinking.”12 The corners of lard or felt frequently found in Beuys’ pieces are philosophically integrated with the work, but physically segregated. From Beuys, Palermo could not have helped but learn of form dislodged from compositional considerations.

The connection between master and pupil is understood by way of the particular shapes of Palermo’s Objects. A shape in one of Beuys’ many watercolors, Monumento-Uccello, 1960,13 surprisingly matches the outline of an Object such as Schmetterling II, with its elongated stem widening at the bottom and its accompanying winglike shape. The spontaneous treatment in the watercolor embodying this form is typical of Beuys’ drawings, and, whether consciously or not, Palermo adapted the basic delineations of a fluid, painterly shape, suffusing it with materiality. The “T” form of other Objects correlates with the tau-cross form frequently found in pieces of Beuys, where its function is also symbolic, but the large “T” shape of Palermo’s Objects, constructed out of pieces of found wood, is stripped of any secondary, associative content. Consolidated as they are in this manner, outside of a rectangular framework, the Objects appear unfamiliar and untraditional as forms.

Palermo avoided the symbolic ramifications of Beuys’ work and gave conceptual meaning to isolated form in strictly visual terms. In the search for a way to contend with form, his work can be compared to the early sculpture of Bruce Nauman. Toward the “reform” of sculpture, Nauman sought alternative methods of determining form. In explaining his early fiberglass pieces he maintained that using parts of his body as a mold—shoulders, knees, or the space defined by armpits—“gave them reason enough for their existence.”14 A drawing by Nauman entitled Concrete (or Plaster Aggregate) Cast in Corner, Then Turned Up on End, 1966, epitomizes his desire to endow sculpture with a reason for being, not as form conjured up in the mind of the artist, but rather as form governed by external realities or principles, however these might be defined by the artist. Palermo’s interest in the triangle is even closer to the idea of Nauman’s drawing than to the idea of Beuys’ Fat-Corner, with its expressive character and intent. In contrast to Beuys’ Fettecke, Nauman’s upright, triangular mass signifies nothing outside the problems of art.

Like Nauman, Palermo detached form from its traditional association with representational imagery or compositional conventions. In the process he reestablished a meaningful ground, in all senses of the word, for painting. The Objects, Stoffbilder and wall paintings, each by different means, reinterpret the conventional division between real and painted space. The Objects imbue painted form with an independent existence in three-dimensional space. Though flat, the Stoffbilder endow painting with “material” actuality, the depicted forms of the wall paintings converging with the forms found in the reality of architectural space. Palermo’s work, cohesive in its intent, offers a significant contribution to the major artistic developments of the late 1960s. While the anti-illusionistic concerns, and even the substitution of new materials for paint on canvas, in the Objects and Stoffbilder, parallel ideas in the work of such seminal figures as Stella, Flavin or Judd, the wall drawings and paintings are related to the work of Sol LeWitt and Daniel Buren.

Within a few months of each other LeWitt and Palermo made radical decisions to draw directly on the wall and to use the entire surrounding space, but they were motivated by different intentions. For LeWitt: “The wall is understood as the absolute space, like the page of a book. One is public, the other private.”15 The wall presents a context for the expression of ideas which due to their life-size scale are “read” differently from the way they are in a book. Having made his first wall drawing for a group exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, in October 1968, LeWitt has continued to record the visual complexities of simple linear systems in terms of the expanse of the wall and spatial enclosures.

LeWitt superimposes a predetermined plan for a system of lines on a chosen wall or within a particular space. He evolved a basic series, All Combinations of Arcs from Corners and Sides; Straight Lines, Not-Straight Lines, and Broken Lines, 1973, for example, which “was used for many wall drawing installations.”16 The same work can be re-created any number of times in any number of places: “No matter how many times the piece is done it is always different visually if done on walls of differing sizes,”17 or of differing shapes, according to the artist.

Bernice Rose has pointed out that in 1969 LeWitt first considered the possibility of making “a total drawing environment” by “treating the whole room as a complete entity—as one idea.”18 Seeking to integrate his work with the environment, LeWitt works directly on the wall, infusing the given surface with his drawing. But if the wall and space in LeWitt’s work support “a language and narrative of shapes”19 decided in advance, in Palermo’s work individual architectural elements—walls and the space they create—directly dictate the shape of the piece. Palermo approximated the procedures of LeWitt in an isolated instance when he imposed a system of blue isosceles triangles, each 9 by 18 inches, directly on the wall, for an exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, in 1970. The triangles were painted at the center of the wall in a continuous row around a rectangular room at the specified distance of 54 3/8 inches apart. Placed at regular intervals around the space, the triangles themselves bore no reference to any previously existing structural element, simply following the uninterrupted surface of the four walls. The Brussels piece, while related to the method of LeWitt in the application of a predetermined plan, nonetheless reinforces the essential distinction between the underlying purposes of the two artists, the one concerned with the fusion of line and space, the other with the delineation and depiction of independent form.

The dependence of form on selected features of the given architecture in Palermo’s wall drawings and paintings also corresponds with ideas in Buren’s work. Buren began to evolve and implement his ideas in 1968 by executing work in public spaces with the striped material of alternating white and colored vertical bands, about 3 1/2 inches wide, that he has used in all work since. Explaining the way he arrived at an early piece for the Wide White Space Gallery, Antwerp, in January 1969, Buren described how pieces of striped paper the size of the poster for the show were applied to the flat plinth on the outside of the gallery building. The stripes followed the contours of the plinth from a hydrant, which interrupted it at one end, to the entrance door at the other end, and then through and into the gallery itself. Buren concludes, “The situation inside the gallery is thus dictated by the situation of the piece outside, which uses the only space available as a result of the architecture given.”20 His work extends outside of, and beyond, traditional interior art space, and each piece is uniquely based on, and inserted into, the context of a selected external situation. Although confined to the conventional exhibition areas, Palermo’s wall paintings are more closely identifiable with the work of Buren than with the work of LeWitt in their relationship to external reality. Just as the placement and format of Buren’s striped material are governed by external factors, Palermo’s wall paintings are (with the exception of the Brussels piece) rendered in response to forms already present in the given architecture, whether these are disclosed by outlining the walls of a gallery space or by importing the found shapes of a window or staircase.

Palermo’s drawings and watercolors acknowledge an overriding concern for form, for form which emerges—sometimes obviously outlined, at other times implicit—from the process of drawing or painting. These works in themselves do not give direct evidence of Palermo’s radical solutions to the questions raised in art over a decade ago, but they testify to the nature of his working process. According to those who knew him, Palermo was not articulate about his work. Gerhard Richter, with whom Palermo collaborated on several works, confirms the observations of others that Palermo never spoke about his work in theoretical terms, although he talked about art a great deal.21 He believed in painting—in the visual communication of ideas which he could not otherwise express. His drawings, betraying a spontaneous treatment of brushwork relegated to the definition of nascent form, range throughout his career, while their directness and immediacy is retained and channeled into the intellectual framework of Palermo’s other work. In general, the drawings signify starting points for ideas not yet structured, initial commitments to color and form. Palermo realized this commitment in the Objects, Stoffbilder and wall paintings which, despite his short life, play a crucial part in the recent history of art.

Anne Rorimer is Associate Curator of 20th-Century Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.



1. Blinky Palermo was the name of the manager for Sonny Liston, the boxer. Joseph Beuys is said to have told Palermo that he looked like him when wearing a certain hat. Palermo assumed this name in 1963 in place of his original name, Peter Heisterkamp.

2. See Germano Celant, Ambiente Arte dal Futurismo alla Body Art, Venice Biennale, 1977.

3. Gerhard Storck, Palermo: Stoffbilder 1966–1972, Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, November 13, 1977–January 1, 1978, p. 12.

4. Johannes Cladders, “Einführung in die Ausstellung Palermo im Städtischen Museum Mönchengladbach,” unpublished text, 1973.

5. Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook 8, 1965, reprinted in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959–1975, New York, 1975, pp. 181–84.

6. Quoted in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art, a Critical Anthology, New York, 1968, p. 157.

7. Recording the most original prevailing thoughts in “Specific Objects,” Judd not only had articulated the idea that “actual space is intrinsically more powerful than paint on a flat surface,” but he also had pointed out that “oil and canvas . . . like the rectangular plane, have a certain quality and have limits.” Palermo’s use of dyed fabric is comparable to Flavin’s substitution of fluorescent lamps for paint, or Judd’s use of colored plexiglass.

8. Storck, op. cit., p. 17.

9. Willoughby Sharp, “An Interview with Joseph Beuys,” Artforum, December 1969, p. 45.

10. Achille Bonito Oliva, “A Score by Joseph Beuys, We Are the Revolution” (interview with Joseph Beuys), Naples Modern Art Agency, 1971, n.p.

11. Sharp, op. cit., p. 47.

12. Sharp, p. 47.

13. Reproduced in Germano Celant, Beuys: tracce in Italia, Naples, 1978, p. 125.

14. Quoted in Jane Livingston, “Bruce Nauman,” in Bruce Nauman, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 19, 1972–February 18, 1973, p. 11.

15. Quote by Sol LeWitt in Sol LeWitt, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1978, p. 139.

16. Ibid., p. 129.

17. Ibid., p. 130.

18. Bernice Rose, “Sol Lean and Drawing,” in Sol LeWitt, (Note 15), p. 32.

19. LeWitt in Sol LeWitt, (Note 15), p. 135.

20. Daniel Buren in Rudi Fuchs., ed., Discordance/Cohérence, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1976, p. 6.

21. Conversation with the author, April 1978.

For an overview of Palermo’s work at the outset of my research I am indebted to B. H. D. Buchloh for allowing me to attend his classes on Palermo at the Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf, in February 1978, and I am grateful for his comments on the manuscripts.