Blinky Palermo

The Blinky Palermo retrospective organized by Bernhard Bürgi for the Kunstmuseum Winterthur in 1984–85 became something of a legend. The first retrospective of Palermo’s work to be mounted since then (at the Kunstmuseum in Bonn) was also the occasion for the publication of the first book (compiled by Thordis Moeller) to bring together Palermo’s paintings, sculptures, and drawings.

Palermo was unusually careful with the installation of his exhibits; for him it was almost a ritualistic process. He placed considerable value on presenting each group of works in isolation from the others. The curators took these factors into consideration, exhibiting five early oil paintings together, and establishing a relationship between the wall works and the textile paintings. There was also a comprehensive presentation of the sketches and documentation for Palermo’s wall works in the print section of the museum. Only after viewing the entire exhibition did the connections between the various groups of works become clear.

In the large, central room hung the object paintings with which Palermo tried to explode the conventions of three-point perspective, the notion of the image as independent from the painting’s support. The connection to the works of his teacher, Joseph Beuys, is most evident here. By concentrating on reduced forms, such as triangles and right angles, Palermo hoped to tap into the primeval power of sketching. It is precisely in the contradiction between the (at times) strict forms and the almost playful elements (such as the slightly fraying borders) that the enormous potential of his best work lies. Palermo’s synthesis of formalism and antiformalism never becomes systematic, rather he creates a continual dialectic between fixity and openness, thus illustrating the futility of every hermetic system.

Palermo’s last major work, To the People of New York City, 1976–77, was central to this exhibition. This was the first time this piece has been presented publicly outside the U.S, where after the artist’s death this series of 40 aluminum panels was shown at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York. The work, which is confined to three colors—black, red, and yellow—is not limited by this constraint, rather it possesses a flowing, organic rhythm, frequently compared by critics to the jazz music Palermo so prized. That purity of color (a basic tenet of De Stijl) was a goal to which Palermo aspired is evident in his use of a restricted number of colors. Like Mondrian and Van Doesburg, Palermo saw the support of the image as the greatest obstacle to achieving pure, free color. For Palermo, it was his metal paintings that came closest to realizing this ideal. Though it is common to emphasize the heraldic structure of the metal paintings and their similarity to flags, it is precisely these works that show that the quality and effect of color were more important to Palermo than any fixed system of symbols.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from the German by Franz Peter Hugdahl.