New York

Blinky Palermo

Zwirner & Wirth

A selection of prints and multiples that Blinky Palermo made in the ’70s, on view recently at Zwirner & Wirth, demonstrated that while the artist employed heterogeneous media and processes, he consistently took as his point of departure early-twentieth-century models of abstraction. Palermo’s exploration of a range of disciplines, including sculpture and architecture, was arguably, at least as he approached it, somewhat idiosyncratic in the ’60s and ’70s, when many artists were concentrating on the refinement of highly focused practices developed within such genres and subgenres as Pop and Minimalism, Conceptualism and performance, and, latterly, neo-expressionism.

Eschewing the regressive figuration of the last category, Palermo, with his referencing of Kasimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, and Piet Mondrian, signals a contrasting renegotiation of some of the social and political questions posed by utopian abstraction. Shown here, for example, were some of the enigmatic relieflike objects that he made in 1970, including Schwarzer Kasten (Black Box) and Graue Scheibe (Gray Disc), along with corresponding prints that quote, for example, Malevich’s Black Square but exchange the hard edges of Constructivism for softer shapes. Protruding into space in the manner of Yves Klein’s “Monochrome Propositions,” 1956–57, these bizarre little nonshapes are unsettling for appearing neither wholly artificial nor truly organic. At the same time, their irregularity and nonseriality separate them from a Minimalist logic. On the other hand, they recollect moments when high modernism expressed an investment in abstraction as a revolutionary idiom.

Happier than the Morning Sun (To Stevie Wonder), 1975, for example, a wooden triangle that operates as a matrix for four adjacent lithographs, conjoins Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, 1913–14, with shapes drawn from Constructivist sources (most obviously Lissitzky’s Red Wedge, 1920). This particular work goes some way toward a demonstration of the way in which abstraction and chance codetermine one another in a post-utopian, Capitalist-Realist framework—one, that is, in which chance is a condition of the market, an index of West Germany’s economic miracle, and abstraction becomes a mnemonic rather than an ideological idiom.

In a print titled Fenster (Window), 1970—which relates to Fenster I, 1970–71, a wall painting produced for the Kabinett für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremerhaven—Mondrian-like black horizontal and vertical lines delineate the shape of an architectural structure (in fact the front window of the gallery in which the painting was installed). Thus abstraction, unmoored from the frame, here establishes the boundaries of institutional exhibition space itself.

Palermo studied with Joseph Beuys at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and while his teacher insisted, problematically, on an “organic” community, Palermo seems to have channeled an interest in new social models through the sobriety of mod- ernism to reach a different vision of collectivity. His To the People of New York City, 1976 (currently on view at Dia:Beacon), exemplifies this drive. A series of heterogeneous panels, it breaks with the seriality of Minimalism to suggest a more dialogic model. The show at Zwirner & Wirth included a set of prints along comparable lines. In both cases, as elsewhere, Palermo looks back in order to move forward, resisting the hegemonies of his time by concentrating on materiality and abstraction as sites of both collective memory and renewed potential.

—Jaleh Mansoor