Blinky Palermo, Rot/Rosa (Red/Pink), 1966–67, fabric on stretcher, 30 3⁄4 x 31 5⁄12".

Blinky Palermo, Rot/Rosa (Red/Pink), 1966–67, fabric on stretcher, 30 3⁄4 x 31 5⁄12".

Blinky Palermo

Blinky Palermo, Rot/Rosa (Red/Pink), 1966–67, fabric on stretcher, 30 3⁄4 x 31 5⁄12".

THE ORGANIZERS of the elegant Blinky Palermo retrospective at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen wasted no time in announcing their bold, materially focused agenda: At the entrance to the exhibition, visitors were greeted by a sequence of short videos featuring Palermo, whose own statements about abstraction introduced, in effect, the daring curatorial program within the galleries. In one segment, excerpted from a 1969 West German television broadcast, the young German artist declares to a group of Düsseldorf high school students: “When a square is well made, it’s simply good, and when it’s done poorly, it’s simply bad. You can see that, if they are presented side by side.”

Cocurators Ulrike Groos of the Kunsthalle, Vanessa Joan Müller of the Kunstverein, and independent curator and Palermo scholar Susanne Küper took Palermo at his word, even dispensing with wall text (aside from a biographical introduction at the entrance) and object labels—visitors to the exhibition were provided with detailed checklists outside each of the main galleries—while engendering precisely the kind of comparative visual analysis that the artist argued was crucial to the appreciation of abstract painting. Breaking with the by-now-canonical hodgepodge installation strategy that has been a staple of previous comprehensive Palermo shows (in which objects in a variety of media were grouped and displayed together in an effort to re-create the look of Palermo’s earliest student exhibitions), the curators—informed by recent research and scholarship on the artist’s later installation designs—instead installed a major body of Palermo’s work in each of four primary exhibition spaces; wall drawings were presented on the exterior walls of the galleries. These focused groupings included two rooms devoted to both early and later examples of his painted and assembled objects, and one gallery each devoted to the cloth pictures and the metal paintings that he was making at the time of his death in February 1977, at age thirty-three. The organization of the galleries enabled visitors to take stock of each endeavor on its own terms, and to explore through direct comparison the tension between Palermo’s general aesthetic approach and the constraints of a given medium.

The organizational variations that emerge when viewing each of these work groups in isolation effectively underscore Palermo’s recurrent desire to bind color to a defined materiality—a mission that becomes far more apparent when these objects are experienced en masse. His friend (and fellow student in Joseph Beuys’s class) Imi Knoebel may have playfully called him a “landscape painter,” but Palermo’s experimentation with color as a discrete structural unit effectively situates him as a kind of architect of postwar abstraction, constructing objects that lend a spatial dimension to an otherwise pictorial practice. The variations between one of Palermo’s first cloth pictures, Rot/Rosa (Red/Pink), 1966–67, for example, and later works such as Untitled, 1969, are most notable for the modification of the number and orientation of the individual panels within each piece. Besides the obvious difference in scale between the two works (Untitled is more than twice the size of the earlier picture), Red/Pink is constructed out of two vertically oriented panels, while Untitled comprises three horizontal cloth sections. By shifting from a vertical to a horizontal composition in the later work, Palermo reinforces the cloth picture’s relationship to the lateral expansion of the gallery wall (a formal concern that would find its fullest expression in his wall drawings). In addition, Untitled is emblematic of a particular formula that Palermo began experimenting with in his later cloth pictures, whereby fabric of the same color is used in two adjacent panels to give the impression of a top- or bottom-heavy composition. This repetition renders the division between like-colored panels momentarily imperceptible, a visual distortion that subtly foregrounds the work’s shifting identification as both object and image.

Palermo’s efforts to mediate the weight and potentially destabilizing force of a particular color were further highlighted in the gallery devoted to the metal paintings, where visitors became quickly attuned to the central role color plays in the equilibrium of the multipart acrylic-on-aluminum pieces. That role was evident, for example, in the contrast presented by the neighboring four-panel works Himmelsrichtungen (Directions of the Sky) I and II, both 1976: The first version’s rhyming of black and red (the center two panels) and of yellow and white (the outer two) maintains an overall internal balance against which the second version, where only the two inner panels have a matching color, appears to be almost disruptively inharmonious. Yet the more complementary and unified design achieved in Directions of the Sky I actually lends the work a circumscribed feeling in comparison with II, which reads more like an open sequence that has the potential to continue indefinitely. The more serially determined composition gestures toward the possibility of future deviation, a crucial issue within Palermo’s oeuvre, such that aesthetic harmony is often consciously undermined in an effort to highlight the artwork’s inescapable attachment to the encompassing spatial parameters of the gallery wall.

Perhaps the show’s single lapse, if it can even be seen as such, was that documentary records of only two of the almost thirty wall drawings that Palermo executed during his career were on display. Of these, three schematics for Treppenhaus (Stairway), 1970—a project that Palermo executed by tracing the outline of a central stairwell in an apartment building in Düsseldorf and flattening the resulting measurements into a two-dimensional schema, which was then painted on one of the walls of Galerie Konrad Fischer in 1970—were hanging in a liminal space between the main stairwell of the Kunsthalle and the individual gallery spaces. Situating the diagrams here next to an actual staircase conjured the importance of architectural intervention to Palermo’s work; but the positioning was ultimately at pains to highlight the more fundamental issue of the artist’s concern with the tectonic dimensions of painting, as they were explored in the contemporaneous cloth pictures and later elaborated in the metal paintings. While almost nothing of the original wall pieces remains, there is an extant critical collection of diagrams, preparatory drawings, and installation photographs—largely assembled by the artist himself, these have been carefully collected and displayed at past Palermo exhibitions—whose inclusion in this retrospective would have helped establish and highlight the significant connections between such otherwise potentially disparate-seeming work. The explicitly architectural nature of these drawings relates directly to the formal concerns explored in the cloth and metal paintings, where color attains a material weight and physicality fitted to an architectural frame. Palermo, unlike many of his American colleagues, was more concerned with the effective articulation of spatial preoccupations than with a rigid adherence to the dictates of one particular medium. Thus the wall drawings are essential to understanding each of the different projects as part of a larger organic process—this wide-angle perspective casts Palermo’s work in a decidedly unfamiliar light within the history of postwar abstraction, contrasting the artist with American contemporaries such as Brice Marden. The wall drawings help situate Palermo’s objects, cloth pictures, and paintings as part of a more fundamental investigation into the underlying dynamic between object and context.

Yet this is still a minor criticism of an otherwise exciting reappraisal of Palermo’s work. In fact, the exhibition’s originality extends even to the catalogue, which eschews the standard essay format in favor of a series of pointed discussions conducted by leading Palermo scholars in concert with curators, art historians, artists, and architects not normally associated with the scholarship on Palermo. In keeping with the curatorial scheme, each conversation focuses on a particular work group, adding yet another layer of discursive and theoretical depth to an already comprehensive show. From these pages a new Palermo emerges: an artist deeply engaged with the material culture of the booming German economy of the 1960s, a fabricator of surfaces aimed at defining and organizing architectural space, an abstract painter struggling to establish an artistic identity amid the dominant paradigms of American Minimalism and Conceptual art. As a final companion piece to this groundbreaking survey, the provocative catalogue helps to cement what will no doubt be a historic moment in the exhibition and reception of the artist’s work—Palermo’s significance will now be understood not just in terms of painting but according to his unique occupation of what one discussion in the catalogue describes as the territory between “surface” and “space.” Through both text and exhibition, the organizers have fashioned a critical apparatus that reveals, among other things, Palermo’s insistent drive to balance matter and image, to route color back into the material support, and to allow the aesthetic object to articulate its contingency within a larger architectural environment: in short, to grant us a very different view of modernism.

Colin Lang is an art historian currently living in Berlin.