PRINT February 1986


BLINKY PALERMO (1943–1977) GAVE US some of the most beautiful, authentically spiritual objects to be made in the ’70s, a time when the art scene was going through the throes of becoming “open” In the midst of all the pluralistic noise, Palermo held fast to "basic art’: a term applicable to the best abstract art. What makes Palermo’s art especially basic is that it adheres to the spiritual goals of the pioneer abstractionists, who advocated revolt against the world’s materialistic philosophy as well as against art’s own version of narcissistic materialism, art for art’s sake. Palermo reduced his own art material to a minimum —thin color on aluminum or paper, surrounded by space not simply vast but infinitized by the work’s palpitating stillness and intimate scale. His work is an invitation to inward adventure, implying a general spiritual and medicinal purpose for art. In one piece, using an oddly shaped newspaper feuilleton entitled “Medizin und Seelenkenntnis” (Medicine and the knowledge of soul), Palermo created a “mystical inner construction” that signifies the therapeutic value of art: meditative contemplation of this subtle shape is a cure for the afflicted soul. This is Palermo’s “message.”

When I saw his works again recently on exhibition in New York, I thought of them as austere little abstract pills, probably astringently bitter but at first glance sweet-looking. They seemed to be art’s alchemical response to Thomas Ernest Hulme’s prescription for making a poem, his insistence on the radical simplicity of the process and of the resulting work of art. But radical simplicity is immensely difficult to achieve and to abide by however easy it has come to seem today, when abstraction has become empty and clichéd. Sigmund Freud reminds us that clichés (prototypes) repeat and repeat inwardly, relentlessly; we tend to find in them spiritual confirmation for our being. Palermo’s works suggest this relentlessness. They are concrete signs of an obsessive concentration on absolute, and absolutely intelligible, form. It looks variable because its articulation is subject to contingency; that is, once it enters the world it has its vicissitudes like anything else. Contingency is most evident in Palermo’s Months of the Year, ca. 1976, least evident in the more obviously absolutist Osten-Westen III (The East-The West III, 1976). The latter work’s triptych format, which is traditionally religious in import, is perceived as a flattened passage that gradually unfolds into a long corridor of inner space. In a world of artworks that blare like transistor radios, Palermo has given us a visual mantra in which color is elevated into the host of the expectant consciousness. These are jewels in the crown of the Sublime.