In the catalogue that accompanies this large-scale retrospective devoted to Blinky Palermo, chapters bear titles such as ‘New York Conversations about Blinky’ and ‘On Palermo’, in which Benjamin Buchloh and Lynne Cooke chat informally about the artist. These texts set a tone that is light and warmly familiar but also full of profound esteem: after all, Palermo is an artist of near-mythical stature. When he died unexpectedly in 1977 aged only 33, Palermo left behind a stripped-down oeuvre that embraced painting, object and installation and which was to exert a huge influence on art history. Perhaps as a result of his untimely death, Palermo is revered without envy by fellow artists and held in high regard throughout the art world. Also as a result, his works are rare, but many were fortunately taken into safe keeping early on both by museums and institutions and other artists.
In keeping with the tone of the catalogue the exhibition also maintained a certain lightness of touch. This was the first comprehensive show of Palermo’s work in Dusseldorf – the city where he attended art school and developed his early career. After initially studying under Bruno Goller, Palermo joined Joseph Beuys, in whose class he received his moniker on account of a resemblance in appearance and style to the boxing promoter and mobster Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo. His work was shown early on by important Rhineland galleries including Schmela, Friedrich and Konrad Fischer, before gaining international recognition in 1972 for covering a stairwell at documenta 5 in Kassel with orange anti-rust paint.
Here, in the shared entrance area of the two exhibition venues, a wall filled with photographs of the artist and a screen presenting video documentation of the Dusseldorf art scene of the 1960s and ’70s created the atmosphere of a homecoming party. And because the loaning bodies allowed even fragile works to be hung without protective Perspex cases or frames, curators Ulrike Groos, Vanessa Joan Müller and Susanne Küper were able to give a fresh, less institutional perspective on Palermo.
On the mezzanine floor and in the main space of the Kunsthalle, a strikingly dynamic hanging traced the artist’s development, poignantly taking us in the space of two walls from his early works to his later installations. As a 20-year-old student, Palermo broke down a Kasimir Malevich motif: in Komposition mit acht roten Rechtecken (Composition With Eight Red Rectangles, 1964) brightly coloured rectangles glide gently over a crumbly white ground like kites, and because a segment of the same colour in the upper left-hand corner could be part of another rectangle that is just descending a little slower than the others towards the canvas landing strip, they appear to be scattered at random.
Before long, however, Palermo’s paint left the canvas completely – although he continued to exhibit canvas on its own as flax-brown cloth, as in Leisesprecher III (Quiet Speaker III, 1968–72) – and he began making colourful objects such as Blaue Scheibe und Stab (Blue Disc and Stick, 1968). These forms, which are neither smoothly geometrical nor organic (they can be described as laths and boards or as circles and lines), re-enact the gestures of Modernism on a room-filling scale, constituting handmade adjustments that always look perfect but never over-technical. Designs for a mural Palermo created for the Dusseldorf gallerist Konrad Fischer, Treppenhaus (Stairwell, 1970), reveal how the artist painted a narrow band on the wall of the gallery’s stairwell, exactly opposite and precisely mirroring the protective strip below the handrail.
It is fitting for different phases of Palermo’s oeuvre to be shown by genre. In the long sky-lit gallery at the Kunstverein an almost spiritual moment was achieved by hanging the Stoffbilder (Fabric Pictures, 1966–72) – simple combinations of coloured materials sewn together along horizontal or vertical seams and attached to stretchers – along all four walls. Although the individual works are modest, as one walks through the space from one end to the other, they give the collective impression of ceremonial standards, although Palermo has been careful to avoid any similarity to existing ensigns, an effect heightened by the subdued colour range. This is Hall of Flags meets Rothko Chapel.
Coney Island II (1975) is one of the aluminium panels Palermo painted with a uniformly gravelly texture during his residence in the USA, where he lived from 1973 until his death four years later, which were on show in the Kunsthalle’s side-lit gallery. The work consists of four individual panels, each about the size of a ten-inch record, and each bordered by two thin strips of colour at the top and bottom edges: turquoise alternates with red, collides with pale lemon, pink and bright blue. It was with works such as these that Blinky, as he was commonly called in New York, marked out his own path between Minimal, Pop and fine-tuned painting.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell