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PRINT March 2011

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Blinky Palermo

Blinky Palermo, Untitled, 1970, synthetic paint on canvas on wood and fiberboard, four parts, each 5 7/8 x 5 7/8 x 2". Photo: Jens Ziehe.

THERE ARE VERY FEW ARTISTS for whom my admiration is absolute, and Blinky Palermo is one of them. It is most productive to call him a painter, because even if not everything he made was a painting, those other things can best be understood as originating in painting and extending it.

Michael Fried told us in 1967 that for a modernist painting to be successful it must overcome its objecthood. For me, Palermo’s achievement was, on the contrary, to make paintings that are plainly objects and at the same time successful paintings. More than successful: It is my conviction that Palermos at their best are great paintings.

Clement Greenberg observed in 1940 that certain artists, such as Jean Arp, had moved from painting to bas-relief and then to sculpture because they wanted to work with elements unavailable to “pure painting”—a phrase that implies there is painting other than pure and furthermore just as good. And he later described aspects of Mondrian’s paintings in a way Yve-Alain Bois has summarized thus: “Greenberg insisted on the physical presence of these paintings. . . . [H]e notes their quality of inscribed objects in the real space of the room.” As G. L. K. Morris, a colleague of Greenberg’s at Partisan Review, wrote in 1943: “It is Mondrian . . . who goes farthest toward giving us sculpture,—although the word ‘object’ might better characterize one of his canvases.” Of course object in 1943 was not the term of opprobrium that Fried would make it in his essay “Art and Objecthood” in 1967. At the time, the word was applied to paintings that registered so strongly as three-dimensional material entities in space that no other word would do.

Greenberg also called Mondrian’s paintings “islands.” He saw them as objects in a surround: An island is made an island by the water that surrounds it. Greenberg also said of Mondrian’s paintings that the “space outside them is transformed by their presence.” It’s clear he didn’t mean to suggest that a Mondrian acts on the space it is in as Fried later said literalist objects do. Instead, I would say, he meant that the paintings implicate the space of the walls they are on and, to a degree, the space into which they extend.

So, in the early 1940s, Greenberg and Morris introduced these concepts: painting that is other than pure, paintings as objects, paintings that implicate the walls around them and that act beyond their physical limits. Of course, Greenberg would go on to prescribe a far narrower view of modernist painting, but it was in relation to this more capacious version of modernism that Palermo began working, twenty years after Greenberg and Morris had sketched it out.

Palermo understood that paintings could be in multiple parts (one object implies others) and that objects could be placed anywhere, not just at eye level, as had been the norm. Untitled, 1970, consists of four elements, identical in size but each a different color, and hung not on one wall but in a corner. Each implicates not just the part of the wall around it and between it and the others but also the volume between the two walls. The elements are so deep in relation to the area of their faces that they are boxlike objects thrusting into space, and their objectlike character is emphasized by the fact that the visible sides of each are painted. And their being hung at different heights, only one of them near eye level, puts us in an unaccustomed relation to them that makes them seem still more objectlike.

My favorite work in “Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964–1977,” which I saw recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was Untitled, 1973, a gray monochrome on a sheet of steel one meter square. A standard photograph of this painting tells us nothing useful about it. You have to see it. The paint is matte, and it coats the entire surface. Manually worked without being gestural, the paint gives us plenty of texture to look at, but the power of the work lies not only in its surface but also in its relation to what is outside it. The support is emphatically flat, in conformance with Greenberg’s later prescription, and its thinness underscores its flatness. But the thinness permits (or requires) a mounting that undoes what flatness might normally do. The mounting holds the support well away from the wall, so the edges of the painting are not bound to the wall but are, so to speak, free. This makes the extent of the surface exact. The edges invite us to pay attention to them in a way that the thicker edges of a conventional canvas do not, and so the edges, visible only when we look at the painting obliquely, become a part of our experience of it. And the painting, held away from the wall, invites us to look not just at its edges but also behind it. Further, the mounting brings parallax into play. When we look at the painting from different angles, as it gives us the freedom to do and which it asks us to exercise, we see its edges move in relation to the wall. And so the painting makes us see the wall it is on, in relation to which it is an island.

Working within modernism, Palermo expanded it. We are still within modernism, and it makes its demands on us, as it did on Palermo. What he did then can be done today. There are ways to overcome the arbitrary other than those he devised in his wall paintings, and size, placement, shape, and relations between separate elements can play their part. There is a place in modernism for paintings as objects.

“Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964–1977,” organized by Lynne Cooke for Dia Art Foundation and CCS Bard, is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, through May 15; travels, in expanded form, to Dia:Beacon, Beacon, NY, and the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, June 25–Oct. 31.

Morgan Fisher is an artist based in Los Angeles.