Blinky Palermo

Dia Art Foundation

By the time of his death in 1977 at the age of 33, Blinky Palermo was an important painter. But for Palermo painting had ceased to be merely an art medium, and had become instead a mania, a passion that both intoxicated him and drained him. No exhibition of work by Palermo (whose real name was Peter Heisterkamp) has succeeded better at making this clear than the one first presented at the Munich Haus der Kunst and later transferred to the Cologne annex of the Dia Art Foundation. Assembled by Franz Dahlem and Imi Knoebel, both close friends of Palermo, this highly provocative and illuminating show included drafts and sketches, pictures in oil and in cloth and objects, all of which revealed Palermo’s work as a creative adventure, a struggle toward the very core of painting.

Many of the characteristics that were considered essential to painting—at least in the ’60s and ’70s, the years of Palermo’s work—have long since been put into storage. The talk at the time was of pure, analytical, elemental painting, but Palermo was interested in other things about the medium—he didn’t want to make paintings; he wanted to achieve the absolute form of painting.

“What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire? Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8,000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea.” This is the beginning of a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses quoted in the catalogue that accompanied this show. One could substitute “Palmero” for “Bloom,” and “painting” for “water.” What was earthly for one was art for the other. To probe the universality of painting, to plumb its unfathomable depths, to grasp them concretely in the sculptural “object,” was always Palermo’s passionate impulse.

Palermo was a student of Joseph Beuys, but he differed from his teacher both in the figural realm and, even more so, in his use of materials. For Palermo, as for Beuys, achieving a growing sensitivity to his material through intimacy with it was not without its challenges. Although he eventually went off in a completely different direction, his years of training with Beuys may account at least in part for the depth Palermo achieved in his interrogation of materials.

Palermo’s “objective” compositions demonstrate just how much he sought to translate his art into an autonomous structure, image and object. All of Palermo’s work refers to color-forms as material, substantial elements determined by the subject’s identity with the image. What was thoroughly tested in his figurative compositions leads—despite every charming conundrum of art history—directly to Palermo’s reduction to utmost simplicity, to basic geometric structures. The precision of these forms is evidence less of mathematical calculation than of sensory-poetic elegance. His forms—triangles, T-shapes, juxtaposed or superimposed rectangular color-surfaces, the ascending bandlike structures of his staircase drawings, ovals—are the expression of a formally abstract artistic reality. They are charged with a poetic vision of painting as an identity unto itself. It would be difficult to link the two watercolors on notebook graph paper entitled Landscapes, 1964, with the watercolors from 1976 entitled Yellow River I and Yellow River II, or the sequence from 1974 called Happier than the Morning Sun to the Stoffbilder (cloth-paintings). The impulsiveness of the earlier work only seems to contradict the coolness of the later. But at a deeper level both demonstrate Palermo’s attempt to grapple with the ineffable, by means of which art becomes simple reality. Such an artistic stance is inherently religious. In the cloth-paintings, the fixed identity of the image, always marked by the work process as well, for the first time takes stock of all its parts, and thus of itself. Out of this finally-attained self-consistency, comes the importance of the fact that the work exists in space. Palermo’s wall drawings, represented in this show by sketches and drafts , show that he sought this spatial determinancy.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.