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PRINT October 2002

FOUR OF A KIND: THE ART OF BLINKY PALERMO

IT'S TOO BAD THE BLINKY PALERMO exhibition scheduled to open next month at Barcelona's Museu d'Art Contemporani won't be traveling to the United States. Four Palermo retrospectives have toured European cities since 1980, and none of them has made it to the artist's beloved America. Not that he hasn't been welcome. A Palermo work has just gone up at the Museum of Modern Art's temporary home in Queens, New York, and the Dia Center for the Arts is scheduled to display To the People of New York City, 1976, in the Dia's new Beacon space a short distance up the Hudson next year. To the People was the talk of the town when Palermo's longtime dealer and friend Heiner Friedrich showed it in his New York gallery soon after the artist's premature death, in 1977—every painter who lived in the city then seems to remember the show as a refreshing surprise. Palermo had moved to New York in 1973, but unfortunately most of his work has somehow been left behind.

A photograph of Palermo shows his contemplative profile doubled in one of his signature triangles. The picture captures the problem with Palermo's reception in Germany, particularly since his death: The artist is in the work. For many, his sensitive demeanor and short life, of only thirty-three years, belong in the picture, as though he were some suffering existentialist. Given a litany of biographical trauma rivaling that of Jackson Pollock and Eva Hesse, the image may have been inevitable.

Palermo was born Peter Schwarze in Leipzig, in what would shortly become East Germany. He and his twin brother were adopted as infants by a family named Heisterkamp, a name they took. The family soon moved to the West German city of Münster, where Palermo's adoptive mother fell seriously ill and died when the boy was fifteen. He was rechristened once more in 1964, when he entered Joseph Beuys's class at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, taking the curious moniker of Sonny Liston's Mafia manager, Frank “Blinky” Palermo. (Peers had joked about his resemblance to this exotic American, and Beuys had cautioned that the name “Peter Heisterkamp” wouldn't cut it in the '60s art world.) By all accounts, Palermo was a charming womanizer who nevertheless remained notoriously quiet in public and was especially reserved about his art. There were problems with alcohol and drugs, and he died on the remote Maldive island of Kurumba. It's the résumé of a romantic.

Though Beuys was interested in his student's personal crises, he remembered Palermo as an artist who “left behind a fragment in which one can nevertheless feel the impulse—the impulse of the era.” Beuys's statement is provocative, but its implications have never been fully pursued. In Germany, with all the fuss about Palermo's life, it has been difficult to consider his work in relation to anything else. In the United States, meanwhile, not enough is known about either Palermo or his European context for anyone to follow Beuys's lead; the era is usually associated with Minimal and Conceptual art, and developments abroad are largely relegated to the sidelines of art history.

Palermo left us with four distinct bodies of work, and as different as they may look on the surface, they have in common an abstraction that is always saturated with the marks of its time. Take the “Stoffbilder,” the so-called cloth pictures. From 1966 through the early ‘70s, Palermo would shop local department stores for lengths of commercially dyed monochrome cloth. He would have two or three of these sewn together (initially by his first wife, Ingrid, and later by Richter's first wife, Ema) and then mount the joined bands on stretchers usually measuring two by two meters (roughly six feet six inches square). The cloth pictures convey Palermo's passion for color and its combinations: bright blue and red; orange and dark blue; pink, orange, and black; light blue, green, and red. The palette became more vivid over the years, especially as combinations of three colors pushed aside the simpler pairs, but Palermo carefully orchestrated the works’ installation to let more subdued combinations radiate as well. In a one-man show at the Konrad Fischer gallery in Düsseldorf in 1968, for example, he alternated pictures made of intense and bright hues with more restrained ones—a feast of color. The fabrics were common stock at a time when bold colors dominated interior decoration, clothing, and advertising, reflecting the progressive and optimistic spirit that had captured the German imagination despite the waning of the postwar economic miracle. In fact Palermo may have abandoned the silks he initially used for these works in part because they looked too precious—not common enough, not straight out of his neighbor's living room.

The cloth pictures were drenched in consumer culture. They were made of commercial fabrics, and their horizontal division accentuated their department-store origin: Saleswomen unrolled bolts of this cloth in side-to-side rows in front of themselves, not away, in columns. The horizon lines dividing Palermo's pictures suggested landscapes to many critics—his friends jokingly called him a “pure landscape painter”—and landscapes, of course, are the most popular genre of painting. (Think of Komar and Melamid's “Most Wanted” paintings of the mid-'90s, based on poll results in various countries: Apparently, only the Dutch prefer abstraction to lakes, mountains, and grazing deer.) The large size of the cloth pictures, along with their installation low on the wall (only about a foot from the floor), gave them an almost decorative aspect, and their simple shapes and crisp demarcations resembled the fashionable forms of '60s Volkswagen ads and Courrèges dresses. Even the much-remarked-upon “American” look of Palermo's color fields positioned the work well for German collectors, who were at the time emptying their wallets for art made in the USA.

Was Palermo simply catering to the expanding art market of Düsseldorf and nearby Cologne as they hosted the first contemporary-art fairs and a growing number of galleries? The work suggest he was wittier than that. If Clement Greenberg had famously concluded that “a stretched or tacked-up canvas
already exists as a picture—though not necessarily as a successful one,” Palermo got around the critic's wariness and made successful modernist pictures out of stretched but unpainted cloth. Many critics have described them as “pure” or “essential,” and indeed all the modernist commandments are in place here. The cloth pictures are impeccably flat, because the color is identical with its support, much like the stains of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. They also convey a sense of unity, an important feature of modernist painting. Palermo's first cloth pictures had vertical divisions that he soon gave up—perhaps not just because he liked the landscape allusion of the horizontal line, but because verticals tend to divide our binary vision, making the picture seem less whole. Classical proportions also contribute to this sense of wholeness, as do Palermo's combinations of colors with similar qualities or intensities of light.

In the cloth pictures, then, modernism meets the market. The supposed autonomy of painting converges with the medium's utter dependence on outside factors. (Frank Stella's mid-'60s paintings in fluorescent Pop colors share this dualism, but their modish palette looks more like an embarrassing side effect.) Through his love affair with American painting, Palermo had experienced firsthand the way this supposedly reflexive art was, more than anything else, a hot market item on German gallery walls. Still, at a time when irony reigned (Polke) and Conceptual artists considered a canvas merely a good joke (John Baldessari), Palermo continued to care about painting. In a cleverly optimistic practice with subtle means at its disposal, he always chose open-ended possibilities over foreclosure. Palermo cleared a space for painting by playing between seemingly irreconcilable poles. That may be why he's such an artist's artist today, a painter's painter especially. It may also be part of the reason his work never rode the wave of popularity experienced from the late '70s through the '80s by New German Painting, with its irony, self-obsession, and gloom.

For his nearly thirty wall paintings, Palermo drew lines on architectural surfaces or covered them with monochrome fields of color, often highlighting spatial characteristics of a room or adding ornamental features. Made over a five-year period beginning in late 1968, the wall paintings largely overlap with the sewn paintings. While the two bodies of work couldn't look more different, they share an interest in long-forbidden territories and muddied categories. Even more than the cloth pictures, the wall paintings venture into decoration, embraced in the late nineteenth century by artists like Paul Gauguin as a way to overcome the burden of mimesis, but later feared and shunned by pioneers of abstraction like Wassily Kandinsky. Today, thirty years after Palermo's example, decoration is once again fertile ground for artists as diverse as Liam Gillick, Chris Ofili, Laura Owens, and Fred Tomaselli.

When the Richter retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art last spring lined up two busts the artist had made of himself and Palermo, this portrait of a friendship was missing something: the Palermo wall painting that surrounded the sculptures in a collaborative exhibition with Richter at the Heiner Friedrich gallery in Cologne in 1971. He had painted all four walls ocher and set a hand's-breadth white band around their outer edges—a Neoclassical interior for the early '70s. (Richter has supervised a complete, permanent reconstruction at the Lenbachhaus in Munich. The Barcelona show will refabricate a wall installation that Palermo realized at the Venice Biennale of 1976. Others were recently remade at the Frankfurt Kunstverein and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, England.)

Palermo's contribution to this collaboration reinforced the decorative feel of a related wall painting he had made a couple of months earlier at the Friedrich gallery in Munich. There he had altered only two walls, painting one a subdued orange with a white stripe running around the edges of wall and door, then reversing this color scheme on the facing surface. This was no Neoclassical make-believe, but standard decorative features do come to mind: the combination of moldings with colored walls, the repetition of patterns in reverse symmetry, the contrast between line and plane. Restraint can produce sophistication, though, and this earlier wall painting brought out the complex ambivalence in the relationship of modern art to decoration. Reading as a monochrome picture set on a white wall, the orange plane embodied the virtues that modern artists found in the decorative: nonobjectivity, flatness, and intense color. The white wall, on the other hand, was the modernist nightmare of decoration come true: barely noticed, blending entirely with the architecture, and immersed in the everyday. Palermo literally places us in an uncertain space between decoration and abstraction.

The wall paintings also disturb the perceptual certainty and bodily orientation of their visitors. The orange wall in the Friedrich gallery in Munich, for example, broke up the unity of the white room and appeared to move forward. In other installations Palermo accentuated the scale of the space, or made it “tilt like a ship,” as one viewer recounts. Palermo was right to describe his wall paintings as activating a space. He was often invited to participate in the exhibitions of “environments” that boomed in Europe during this period, exhibitions in which artists worked with the full scale of a space and, for example, entertained visitors in rooms filled with fog or foam rubber. Prewar artist-designed spaces were also being re-created during these years—El Lissitzky's Proun Room, for example, at the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands, in 1965. Yet despite the popularity of these environments, hostile criticism erupted in local newspapers wherever Palermo created his “bleak” and “impressively boring” walls. Certainly his use of cheap house paint and his habit of tracing edges, filling in spaces, and replicating architectural features must have seemed simplistic to the point of childishness. But banality was Palermo's ingenuity. It deflated popular hopes of reviving the utopias of modernism's past and put painting ahead of the grand sociopolitical ambitions of his environmentalist peers. Palermo's banal pursuits resembled those of his slightly older Capitalist Realist friends—Richter, Polke, and Konrad Lueg, aka Konrad Fischer—but his banality was more generic, never class- or group-specific, and focused less on the iconography of interiors than on their materials and making. While German Pop bitingly targeted the bourgeois home, Palermo operated in the blind spots of the utopian spirit.

Palermo's move to New York, shortly before Christmas 1973, could hardly have surprised anyone. His previous visits—once with Richter, once with his second wife, Kristin—had whetted his appetite, and a number of German critics had already praised or disdained the American feel of his work. Many of Palermo's German contemporaries felt threatened by the invading American art, but he was passionate about it and introduced a number of Düsseldorf friends, including Richter, to the New York School classics. His move abroad may have also been a flight from an impasse. His productivity had slowed, and he was stuck. Trying to move beyond the cloth pictures, Palermo had ventured into the touchy realm of the monochrome, which so many artists hate to love. He painted three metal squares with three different odd-colored rust-preventive undercoatings, one of which he had recently used for a wall painting at Documenta 5. But the monochrome was no way out.

A trip to the Rothko Chapel in Houston with his friend Imi Knoebel in the fall of 1974 did the trick. Mark Rothko's elegant plum color and spatial sequencing clearly made an impression, for the two elements appear in Palermo's Times of the Day I, 1974–75, which he painted on his return to the East Coast. (However unstable Palermo may have been personally, he was a strong artist who rarely suffered from the anxiety of influence.) Barnett Newman's Day Before One, 1951, must have been on his mind too while he was painting Times of the Day I, given the works' related titles and identical structures, as well as Palermo's admiration for the older Abstract Expressionist. Times of the Day I contained the basic principles of a new body of work known as the “metal pictures.” These serial structures usually comprise four rectangular aluminum panels mounted away from the wall and at large intervals from one another. Applying intense acrylic colors with fairly visible brushwork, Palermo painted horizontal bands at the top and bottom of each panel to frame a central field.

These works are gorgeous, no doubt. But when you look up close, it doesn't take a modernist to wonder about the awkwardness of acrylic on metal. Palermo explained that if he “were to work with canvas and stretcher, the whole image of the pictures would be a completely different one.” The phrase “image of the pictures” expresses a puzzling concern with the public perception of the material rather than the actual look of acrylic on metal—or not so puzzling, perhaps, if we imagine how strongly metal suggested Minimalism, especially when deployed serially in space, like so many Donald Judd boxes or Carl Andre tiles. As in the cloth pictures, Palermo also served up a hefty portion of American Color Field work—the painting presented as an object, in this case through its distance from the wall; the even, intense, and radiant color. American art for Palermo was a candy store from which to pick and choose. He eagerly browsed US art journals, but, not native to the American art scene and language, he remained partly free from the constraining discussion around opticality and the complexities of objecthood. In this way Palermo was able to make painting new.

The metal pictures suggest systems and theories where none exist. Scanning the panels, we take in colors we can hardly name; we watch them disappear and reappear, as stripe or field; we follow their subtle modulations and ponder their optical tricks. A single work is hard enough to digest, but the process of decoding grows more difficult still in To the People of New York City—Palermo's magnum opus, according to curator and art historian Robert Storr. The work comprises thirty-nine aluminum panels painted in variations of red, yellow, and black. In installation, the panels are arranged in subseries of shifting sizes to encircle the type of loft-size space Palermo had come to know in New York. No matter how hard we try, there is no way to discern a sensible system beyond the most basic parameters and rules—which only function to obstruct our efforts. Palermo offers us an endless play of optical and mental flicker, signs of a painter protesting both the constraints of modernist criticism and the then current “dematerialization of art.” The metal pictures are thus resonant of their time. Specifically American in their interests and specifically European in their skewed response to those interests, these works both acknowledged and collapsed national boundaries and found their place in the transatlantic art world of the '70s.

Palermo had struggled constantly with the limitations of artmaking in Germany. His “objects”—a body of work he made off and on throughout his career, from his first days with Beuys to the end of his life—record the gradually lifting weight of a national tradition as filtered through the work of his teacher. Even Beuys's fiercest critics would concede that in his educational role he single-handedly changed German art for decades to come. It was largely because of Beuys that the Düsseldorf academy became the liveliest, most influential center of European art in the '60s and '70s, comparable to Black Mountain College in '50s America. Palermo preferred that bios in catalogues not mention his teacher, but professed, “I would speak for Beuys. As a personality, as a teacher. As a teacher, he showed me the way to myself and to my possibilities.” In fact Palermo's art may be the best evidence we have for Beuys's cultivation of disagreement in the classroom. Although the younger artist learned a great deal from the older one about the historical meanings of forms and materials, his work gradually moved against much that Beuys stood for.

After Palermo arrived in Beuys's class, he began to make staffs, a staple in Beuys's performances. Palermo attended many of these events, including one that involved the manipulation of a long copper rod wrapped in felt (that performance was famously interrupted when an audience member punched Beuys in the nose). Palermo's vertical elements are also wrapped (canvas over wood), but most of them are placed on the wall, painted, and often paired with a painted plane, removing them from the kind of ritual context explored by Beuys. Over time Palermo's work departed further from the Beuysian tropes with which it is frequently associated.

While Palermo's early two-part objects are still bound up with the romantic notion of a fragment yearning for wholeness, the elements of later examples from this body of work are increasingly independent and unrelated. And if he painted some of his objects with prominent gestural strokes in an expressionist manner, his brushwork betrayed itself more and more. The self-expression appears learned and false, stiff and mechanical. Likewise, Palermo's signature triangle opposes tired notions of the spiritual in abstract art. In the well-known writings of Kandinsky on this subject, the tapering shape of the triangle is associated with dematerialization, while blue, Palermo's color of choice for this shape, embodies the spiritual. But the imperfections of Palermo's triangles—their slightly distorted angles and irregular edges—make them hopelessly material and real. And placed on large expanses of white wall or over doors, these tiny little things also have a comic dimension. Indulging in playful insignificance, they lightheartedly dismiss the gravity of abstraction's spiritual legacy. The surface of the mirrored triangle can become dematerialized, for sure, but the surprise of finding a body reflected there throws one back to the here and now. Even in New York, Palermo kept making objects to confront his native traditions of romanticism and spiritualism, as if to measure the distance he had come from painting the German way.

Christine Mehring is assistant professor of art history at Yale University.