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A Chromatic Embrace

By SIGALIT ZETOUNI
   Last October, New York’s Dia Art Foundation in collaboration with the Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture at Bard College inaugurated the first North American retrospective of the work of German artist Blinky Palermo. One of the foremost postwar German painters, Palermo who had lived and worked in New York from 1973 to1976, has been largely unknown in the United States. This encompassing exhibition is presenting Palermo’s highly influential career through a selection of approximately seventy works, many of which have never before been shown in the United States. Following its presentation in Los Angeles, Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964–1977 is currently showing at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (until May 15), continuing to New York where it is going to show concurrently at Dia: Beacon and CCS Bard (June 25–October 31, 2011).  
    In 1964, German artist Peter Heisterkamp (b. 1943) changed his name to Blinky Palermo, adopting the pseudonym from an Italian-American gangster and boxing promoter. His friends at the Düsseldorf Art Academy and possibly his professor Joseph Beuys had noticed the physical resemblance of the artist to the gangster. In fact, the artist’s birth name was Peter Schwarze, which was changed to Heisterkamp when he was adopted as an infant. Soon after becoming Blinky Palermo, the young artist embarked on a groundbreaking career that lasted until his tragic and mysterious death in February of 1977 while travelling in the Maldives.
     Blinky Palermo’s oeuvre is diverse and visually absorbing. His forms and concepts intersect with Minimalism, Abstraction, and Conceptual Art, and at the same time uniquely expand the practice of painting. During his brief career Palermo dealt predominantly with form and color. He created sculptural forms and paintings that he entitled “objects”, as well as “wall-drawings” that were drawn and painted directly onto the gallery’s or museum’s wall. His signature works were titled “Stoffbilder,” (Fabric Pictures) and were made out of monochromatic planes of industrially produced fabric, sewn together in panels. In 1973, after Palermo relocated to New York his focus became the painting on steel and aluminum. His “Metallbilder” (Metal Pictures) were methodic, and each work consisted of a group of separate panels painted with one main acrylic color area and bands of different colors at the top and bottom. In an interview Palermo explained the process of creating his Metallbilder: “The aluminum panels are first given a priming of white and then painted with acrylic paint. I often paint several different colors on top of one another, as the original concept inevitably changes in the course of the painting process. The finished work usually consists of a sequence of colors or tones which I was unable to invent or envisage when I started it.” (quoted from the catalogue of the XIIIth Sao Paulo Biennial)
    Chicago based independent art historian and curator Anne Rorimer has researched Palermo’s work extensively.  She wrote: “While he was working on the Objects, Palermo embarked on the Stoffbilder, which he fabricated, literally, from bolts of colored cloth that he purchased from department stores. Unlike the Objects but like the Metallbilder, the Stoffbilder not only have pristine surfaces but are rectangular and two-dimensional rather than irregularly shaped. Tautly attached to a stretcher, the fabrics create smooth rectangular planes of color, one above the other. With the exception of early or experimental pieces in satin, silk, or white fabrics such as muslin or linen, the Stoffbilder are made of matte cotton yardage with surface textures and weaves that do not distract from the direct perception of the abutted areas of two or three separate areas of color, which are neatly, almost imperceptibly stitched together. The standard available width of fabric determined the maximum possible dimensions of the colored rectangles, which Palermo matched and scaled intuitively.”(quoted from the Dia Art Foundation web site, Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977, introduction, http://www. diaart.org/exhibitions/introduction/92)
    Palermo liberated the historical concept of painting by changing the rules. He used ready-made material and constructed his paintings with industrial labor. Palermo also radically altered ideas of permanence and conservation. From 1968 he produced murals and wall drawings that intervened directly in the architectural space, and were all eventually destroyed. In Kassel, Germany, for his untitled work at Documenta 5 (1972), Palermo painted the end wall on the landing staircase in the main exhibit hall. He applied an orange rust undercoating that gave the structure a bright orange color. The approaching viewers experienced a transformation of a simple staircase into a play of color, where the rectangle is cut into irregular polygons from different angels.
    These days in Chicago, at the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, a rare work of Palermo is on view. Included in the exhibition Contemporary Collecting: The Judith Neisser Collection is Blinky Palermo’s Untitled, 1972. A close view of the horizontal work reveals the purity of the two colors, and the beauty of its stillness. It is possibly the closest we can get to the essence of Palermo’s work.

Published: April 10, 2011
Issue: 2011 Spring Issue