REVIEW: Blinky Palermo RETROSPECTIVE 1964-1977 (Hirshhorn Museum through May 15th)
By: Samuel Scharf
Upon entering the Blinky Palermo exhibition at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum here in Washington DC, I really didn’t know what to expect. I have little knowledge of “Palermo’s” career if not more than I know his name is made up. His work is at this point little more to me than every other minimalist color painter of the New York juggernaut production of dime a dozen minimalist color painters. Walking into the exhibition I may not have known (what) to expect to see but that I did expect it to be predictable.
A little background on Blinky is that he was born Peter Schwarze in Germany 1943. He passed early in his life at 34 right when his work began to settle into the scope of relevancy. He was quite a interesting figure who made was dubbed Blinky Palermo after looking like the boxing promoter who “owned” Sunny Liston. Blinky was also a student of Joseph Beuys which may have contributed more to his personality than his artwork but we will soon see.
As with most retrospectives the second floor of the museum is layed out in a chronological fashion. When entering the early work, one can pretty much assume what they will see throughout the show. A mixture of Elsworth Kelly and Joseph Albers was soon to come. This premonition wasn’t far from the truth but with some interesting twists and turns along the way. Initially there were heavy worked panels with marks of a certain expression I couldn’t put my finger on. “Blue Bridge” especially was a work that really caught my eye for being so compositionally simple yet technically proficient. I could see the work and strokes he put into that relatively elementary bi-plane relationship between the red and blue fields. This initial room led into a opening of materials immediately as if there was no other way for Palermo to explore. So simple yet so effective was a red totem work on a 30 degree tilt with a handmade metallic frame, I stopped in my tracks, two rooms into a show I “expected” nothing from. This was it and I was hooked for the rest of the show, even with my doubts lingering, I knew that the show would provide. Well done here to the curation and layout!
Materials, materials and more different materials soon began to hold my interests. This artist painted on damn near everything from clothing stretched as canvas to steel painted and looking like wood. Currently this wouldn’t stretch the imagination of a contemporary practice but then in the late 60’s, this work was surely pushing new boundaries. Even though Palermo is often overlooked and died tragically young, by the middle of the exhibition its clear to find his place in the art cannon. With a mixture of the color knowledge of Albers, tragic simplicity of Elsworth and a certain playfulness of Beuys, this guy really did his thing when he did it. The exhibition lends itself to a certain amount of historical art knowledge, but then again a viewer owes it to oneself when entering a “historical” modern house of art. The opening text and pamphlet for the show did more than enough to place Palermo in context. After this introduction I really did feel like his explorations in materials and display were somewhat exciting to an artist (myself) that has seen many different exhibitions of modern art. Palermo's main concerns were with shape, color, a real play in materials and form foremost. Within this scope, regardless of my expectations I did find myself pleasantly surprise walking through what’s now the kicker of the show.
Entering the last 3/4s of the show the viewer hits two back to back large galleries with a scope of work large enough for most living artists with 40 years of production. Beginning with a display of more of his larger works, the first large gallery houses many tri color canvases that show a clear knowledge of color relationships. These works would surely lend themselves to any average collector wanting to fill a spot in their constructivism/minimalist collections. Here I was shrunk in size by canvas’s all easily over 5x5 feet and most larger. Along the room was a mixture of simple steel works, these large canvas’s and an intense amount of different colorings. This pushed me eagerly into the next room which I did not see what was coming before it hit me.
Here in the next large gallery was a total refinement of his color and theory into a very simple display of near forty works. People of New York City (1976), a fifteen-part work comprising thirty-nine aluminum panels painted in variations of cadmium red, cadmium yellow, and black really stopped me to the point of sitting on one of the provided benches. I was challenged to sit wonder and figure why? It seemed to me clear the relationships between the color changes and simple three part relationship. What I couldn’t figure was why did a room with so many works feel so empty? Thus his title People of New York City really made sense. It was clear that they were all different but really in the end they were all empty and all the same. The red wasn’t red an upon further examination it was more of a magenta next to the yellow made a red, and that black was actually a dark dark blue. Impressive simplicity and a highly effective work when shown all together in a room such as the Hirshhorn put together for the show.
Leaving this room you enter the last works of his career and it showed a scope of some revisiting and mostly reiteration of the same note. Except for one work which was blue over white above a chopped 3 part canvas of green and black. That was it his last piece and you could see how his influence was soon to produce very relevant Rothko esq color field paintings had he not died.
My only gripe with the show was the labeling for the titles were trivialized off to the side of the rooms stacked awkwardly and hard to place. This seemed a serious mistake because his titles were often playful and very reflective of his nature. Though as for most minimalist work, they would have distracted from the work itself should they have been next to the works.
If you venture to see this show, please keep a low key expectation and take the work for what it was at the time it was. Blinky Palermo is a very romantic example of the time in NYC (late 60’s, early 70’s) when this German born artist could roll into town, grab some brushes, hang out with Richter, and have a career blossom under ten years.
Its nice to see him get such a strong retrospective but as for most artists, its far to late as the Hirshhorn uncovers yet again (after the Truitt and Klein) retrospective exhibitions much over due after 30 years. But this was all thanks to GUCCI and their funding of the current exhibition which ran all over the country to show Palermo's importance from a collection surely housing some of his best works.
A highlight to close on was my favorite work hands down and you can easily some the show up with. About halfway through the exhibition is a work:
Graue Scheibe [Gray Disk], 1970 | Oil paint and synthetic paint on cotton on wood-core plywood. 5 3/4 x 10 1/2 x 3/4 inches. Collection Olga Lina and Stella Liza Knoebel.
Walk right to that piece, inspect and see what Palermo was really all about. I found this piece amazing in its “history” ever so present with edges beaten down to the other colors under the grey and simple in its minuscule strength. Somewhat like the sucker punch I received from an exhibition that I had no “expectation” on what to expect.