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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Blinky Palermo at CCS Bard and Dia:Beacon

Blinky Palermo Coney Island II  1975  Acrylic on aluminum   Photo: Jens Ziehe
Imagine you are trying to recount your day using just 12 rectangles of eight colors in a strict configuration on four metal panels, then doing it again with the same layout but using only three colors - and you might understand the last years of Blinky Palermo, the pseudonymous German painter who died mysteriously in 1977 at the age of 33, and whose short, intense life's work is the subject of a retrospective at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson and at Dia:Beacon.

Part minimalist, part color-field abstractionist, part performance artist, Palermo got his nom d'artiste while studying with Joseph Beuys, and he took plenty of Beuys's style with him, too - but the clear influences of a wide swath of artists form a snaking modern line: Malevich, Mondrian, Yves Klein, Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, Ellsworth Kelly, and Gerhard Richter all come easily to mind - and, still, Palermo shines through as unique, personal, even soulful in these two meticulously researched and installed exhibitions that really form one strong solo show.

The basic premise is that Palermo has been wrongly overlooked, and that the recognition provided by this event is overdue, specifically in the United States, where he worked for much of his brief time, and where he apparently felt insufficiently appreciated (while being quite successful in Europe as a whole and Germany in particular). While I would not presume to be able to judge the importance of a long-dead artist of the '60s and '70s in relation to others of his time, whether living or dead, I will say this: I loved the shows, and have no doubt that Palermo was the real thing.

The Blinkster (as I like to think of him) was seriously playful - er, playfully serious - and the shows, while clean and cool and uncluttered and immaculately lit, are still fun and joyful and even a little bit unresolved (how can they not be, when the guy's whole life was by cruel definition unresolved itself?).

Untitled (Totem) 1964
The Dia space, flooded with the perfection of north-facing skylights over acres of polished concrete, is still divided up enough to be intimate - you get bits and pieces of Palermo's late output (Bard has the earlier stuff) before you take it in as a whole ... and that allows the gradual effect of the unfamiliar becoming familiar (it was unfamiliar to me, anyway) before you either get too overwhelmed or jump to conclusions too quickly.

At Bard, it's more of a cumulative chronology, flowing from a rather sparse room to an ever-so-slightly less sparse room, to a very slightly busier room, to a rather crowded room, where you get the full impact of Palermo's rich creativity and uniqueness. The lighting here is artificial, but just as colorless and indirect as Dia's natural light, and it allows cool contemplation of objects (mostly painted objects, but not exactly paintings) that speak of a young man's search for a means of expression.

Palermo used paint for color, but he also used other materials - fabric most notably, as well as tape - and he combined the colors with form to make fetishistic things that are more wall reliefs than paintings. Many of these creations have a totemic presence, culminating in one that is titled as such: Untitled (Totem), and which is among the most successful pieces on view here. Other strong pieces in the Bard section are similarly elongated - I particularly liked a minimalist landscape (titled as such) from 1966, which is expressed as a slim blue shape hovering over a skinny green shape, a rivulet of blue invading the green like a bucolic stream.

Further on in the Bard display are several stretched cotton fabric pieces that, unfortunately, reminded me more of Pier I wall decor of the time than they did the Rothko paintings they were inspired by. On the other hand, the next room's rigorously organized documentation by Palermo of his many site-specific proposals and installations is refreshingly rich with ideas and marked by effective execution. The collages of ephemera representing conceptual wall drawings and actual on-site works capture the artist's seriousness, sincerity, and sense of culture quite nicely.

Whereas the Bard exhibition provides a sweeping history (from 1964 to 1973), the Dia exhibition, which straddles 1973 to 1976, is concentrated almost entirely into work from the last two years, as though Palermo were now receiving the solo museum show he might have had right at the time of his death in early 1977. This includes an elaborate and extensive (but still incomplete) piece, posthumously titled To the People of New York City, which plays theme and variation on the colors of the German flag.

To the People of New York City (Part XII) 1976
Photo: Bill Jacobson
I'll admit, even 35 years later, I still resist that black-yellow-red palette - as Palermo understood then, just one generation removed from WWII, Americans still have mixed feelings about the GDR, and an ambitious art project celebrating its flag remains loaded with political freight. What's interesting about the piece is that it develops directly out of the work immediately before it, takes off in a new direction, and then, because it was his last, just stops before completing the trip. We're left wondering what would have come next, whether it would have established something successful for Palermo or not, and if so, what that would have looked like. As it is, we'll never know - but my own impression is that it may have been more off track than on.

What was very much on track was the last resolved work of his career, those pieces from 1975 that followed a fixed four-panel structure of blocks and strips, using flat color of an amazing and very precisely chosen palette to represent their titular Times of the Day; and a few pieces from 1976 that demonstrate a more painterly direction that feels perfectly clear and right. To me, these works sing of a positive spirit, and support the contention that Palermo was one of the significant artists of his generation. It's sad that he is not still here painting away with those who lived on. After all, they are just approaching seventy - still pretty young for an artist.

Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977 was curated by Lynne Cooke and continues at the Center for Curatorial Studies and Dia:Beacon through Oct. 31. This is its last stop on a national tour that included the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. A related installation by Imi Knoebel titled 24 Colors - For Blinky is also on view at Dia and provides a lushly tinted counterpoint to Palermo's work. Knoebel was closely associated with Palermo; this tribute made shortly after his friend's death is a superb and impressive work of art in itself, and occupies its big, long space at Dia perfectly. You won't want to miss it.

Rating: Highly Recommended
Blinky Palermo, installation view at CCS Bard with Landscape 1966 at left
and Blue Disk and Staff 1968 at right      Photo: Bill Jacobson
All photographs courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

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