German Artist Blinky Palermo

London's Serpentine Gallery

By: - Sep 20, 2013

Blinky Blinky

Blinky Palermo
Serpentine Gallery, London
March 26 to May 18, 2003
Museu d’ Art Contemporani de Barcelona
December 13, 2002 to February 16, 2003
Curated by Gloria Moure
Catalogue: Essays by Moure, Anne Rorimer and Angel Gonzalez Garcia, texts in English with translations in Spanish. Biography and chronology, and a List of Works exhibited. 267 pages, illustrated, distribution of catalogue, ACTAR, e mail at
Reposted from Maverick Arts Magazine, May 29, 2003

Over the years, Blinky Palermo is an artist whose work one encounters on rare and geographically dispersed occasions. Perhaps a painting is seen in a German museum collection or a group of drawings in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, or, a suite of late pieces in the collection of the Dia Foundation. These chance and scattered sightings whet my appetite for an opportunity to see the work of this enigmatic, cult figure of contemporary German art.

The display at the Serpentine Gallery, which occupies a relatively small building in a corner of London’s Kensington Gardens, a brisk walk from the venerable Victoria and Albert Museum, presented a stunning installation of a range of primarily abstract works, paintings, stretched fabric pieces, skeletal sculptures from configured lengths of wood and found material, photographs, plans and drawings related to a number of mostly destroyed, site-specific, wall drawings and installations, drawings and works on paper. In the subdued light in several rooms, including a main rotunda gallery, the overall impact of the work was subtle, absorbing and provocative.

There was a glut of thoughts about connections to other artists and a head thumping rush of questions about sources and influences. The very name, Blinky Palermo, surprising for a contemporary German artist, evokes a rush of romantic associations. It provokes a desire to know more about this artist, (1943-1977) and the circumstances of his brief career, just some 15 years in duration. And, to learn of his proper place in the pantheon of contemporary art. Particularly, his position in the movement of making site-specific wall drawings and where his often flat, monochromatic fabric pieces/ paintings fit into simultaneous developments in the New York School.

Also, just what was his relationship as a student of Joseph Beuys and a peer of the artists, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter. There are complex questions as to why Palermo pursued reductive, abstract art, in a Constructivist/ Suprematist manner, in apparent contradiction to the, “social sculpture,” of Beuys, and the complex media and imagery of Richter, Polke and others of the Dusseldorf school. And, what other influences were there on the development of Palermo; in particular, the influential artist and teacher, Otto Piene, and Group Zero, with its interests in abstraction as well as science and technology. Just how to unravel the complex mix of artists, students and teachers who were the focus of Dusseldorf during Palermo’s formative but brief years.

This exhibition, stated in the catalogue to be the first museum level exhibition either in Spain or Great Britain will not soon be repeated. The oeuvre is sparse and fragile. Apparently, it was gathered here with great effort and difficulty. Given the significance and rarity of this occasion the exhibition, its catalogue and related documentation, proves to be frustrating and disappointing. The three essays, by the curator, Gloria Moure, and the authors, Anne Rorimer, and Angel Gonzalez Garcia, raise but do not resolve problems and issues. Their efforts generate a new round of questions to which they provide no further avenues for inquiry or research. The catalogue is poorly organized and edited. Works referred to in the text are difficult to find. One ends up spending a lot of time thumbing through searching for the works being discussed. In one instance, what is described as a seminal work, Flipper, is nowhere to be found even though it is discussed at length.

There is no bibliography, index, or history of exhibitions. The notes on the artist’s life are confined to a single page of chronology. We get only fleeting references to the persona of the artist who is variously described as shy, quiet and reluctant to discuss his own work. There are references to his being a kind of foil or whipping post for the exuberant and arch teaching methods of Beuys who discoursed for hours on end in comparison to the silence of Palermo. The three essays take the formalist approach that the work speaks for itself. There are no quotations from the artist, or those who knew him. It would be significant to read something about him from Brice Marden, for example, who is mentioned as being a friend from Palermo’s several years in New York. What purpose has been served by denying us access to that information? We learn that he started doing his wall drawings, in 1968, within several months of Sol Lewitt. Wouldn’t some quotes from Lewitt have been helpful? Or from Ellsworth Kelly to whom Palermo’s work has been compared?

From the chronology we learn that he died of, “heart failure on 17 February, on a trip with Babette Polter to Kurumba Island in the Maldives archipelago.” It would be helpful in the three essays to know more of the circumstances leading to the untimely death of the artist. A number of women and wives are included in the chronology but just what were their relationships? Might they have been quoted as sources to periods of the artist’s life and work? There are some figurative drawings in the exhibition of a nude, full-breasted woman. What was the relationship of these figurative sketches to the oeuvre of the artist? They have been displayed but not discussed.

Of the three essays, Rorimer’s is stated to be an unedited reprint from an article in Art Forum. Given the limit of space in the catalogue, and the rarity of the occasion, might this text have been referred to in the non-existent bibliography? Why repeat what is already available when so many important issues remain to be explored? Her writing is informative but takes the place of what might have been new and updated research. And much of the writing in the essays by Moure, and Gonzalez Garcia is of a ponderous academic nature. There seems to be little regard for the mechanics of writing and the basics of editing. The essay by Moure seems to stand alone as a theory of abstraction and has difficulty directly connecting us to insights about the artist at hand. And, Gonzalez Garcia, while more lively and tantalizing seems to have no concept of a paragraph. Consequently, there is no rhythm to this writing, which is a daunting challenge intended only for the most committed scholars.

In her essay, “Blinky Palermo or the Vitality of Abstraction,” Moure discusses the specifics of the nature of the abstraction of Palermo as not a reduction from more complex forms or a distillation from nature. She attempts to situate his production relative to earlier forms, such as Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, and to underscore how there is resemblance but difference. This is a promising ambition but we are diverted by writing that assumes a great deal of prior knowledge of readers without properly identifying or even footnoting these scholarly references and sources. We become frustrated trying to follow her path through a dense thicket of philosophy and theory. For example, in discussing the apparent end of determinism in art making in Post War Germany she states, “…Doubtless Wittgenstein, Godel, and Heisenberg, amongst others, had a lot to do with the downfall of certainty, but it was also essential that gradually, and especially during the last forty years of the twentieth century, we began to conceive of matter as a mere support for information or simply as information in a pure state, so that a clear similarity could be discerned between natural processes and cultural processes, the latter being no more than an extension of the former, as the only real difference was that in culture humanity manufactured information supports as needed, whilst nature created them at random following a process of natural selection.” Amen.

It is surprising that the editor of the catalogue did not insist on one of the most fundamental rules of proper writing. That the initial reference to an individual include the first name as well as the last name. And that it is appropriate to include at least a few words identifying that individual. Or, to supply a footnote to assist in further research into the individual discussed or quoted.

In the essay by Gonzalez Garcia, “How to Show Pictures to a Dead Artist,” which has many valued insights, there are also elements that lead to frustration. In discussing the “chairs” of Palermo, about which I remain unclear, he states that, “He didn’t make furniture either, just a few bits and pieces which could be quite well placed within the category of ‘applied arts’ that Coomaraswamy so disliked.”

Hello, Mr. Gonzalez Garcia, just who is this Mr. Coomaraswamy whom you refer to? Are you discussing one Ananda Coomaraswamy, many years ago, the curator of Asiatic Art of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston? In addition to being an authority on Indian and Far Eastern Art, Coomaraswamy had strong, conservative and eccentric opinions about the contemporary art of his time. He was a friend, for example, of Georgia O’Keeffe, who gave him, for the MFA, a vintage set of pristine photographs, including many nude studies of her, by her then deceased husband, Alfred Stieglitz. Apparently, Coomaraswamy, stashed them in a bureau drawer in the MFA basement where they were subsequently rediscovered more than a generation later. Is this the gentleman whom the author is referencing? And, if so, don’t we deserve to know a bit more about this obscure citation. This is just one example of the many tantalizing dead ends in this “scholarly” catalogue. Why make this so difficult for the reader.

The power of the work is compelling enough to push beyond the scholarly obstacles. But Palermo is destined to remain a cult figure. Part of this, perhaps, the artist himself contributed to. There is the name thing for example. The birth name of the artist was Peter Schwarze. Shortly after the birth of Peter and his twin brother, Michael, they were adopted by Erika and Wilhelm Heisterkamp. The catalogue does not state the reason for this adoption. In 1962, at the age of 18, he enrolled in the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie to study with the painter Bruno Goller who was misnamed in a publication, and subsequently ridiculed as, “Grumo,” which is the Spanish word for, “dollop.”

After an interval, young Heisterkamp, became a student of Beuys who had joined the Academy, in 1961, as an expert on, “crosses.” This new professor forbade students to smoke pipes and encouraged them to wear hats. The young artist complied with both of these mandates. And, now in his hat, the student reminded someone of a photograph of a shadowy American Mafioso, one Blinky Palermo, a promoter of the boxer, Sonny Liston. The name stuck.

Gonzalez Garcia argues that we think of Beuys not as a Shaman, the usual description, but rather as a Modernist determined to start over and build a new art. He discusses how Beuys lectured not just famously to dead rabbits, but also to “dead artists.” How his students were what the teacher regarded as the troubled, traumatized, “Keller Kinder,” or, “Cellar Children.” This describes a generation born between 1940 and 1950 that spent their early years huddled in cellars during Allied bombing and the growing up in a devastated, politically divided, post war Germany. This describes my wife, Astrid Hiemer, who was born in Hamburg during the war and who spent her formative years playing in its rubble. This is a subject that we have discussed in great depth over the years of our relationship. So I am familiar with what Gonzales Garcia is describing and the powerful charismatic, autocratic influence of Beuys over his students, of whom, Palermo was the most docile and compliant. And yet, one of the most brilliant and original. Particularly, by deviating from the “social sculpture” of the master.

Here Gonzalez Garcia referred to the influence of Yves Klein and his first exhibition of monochromes in 1958. This was discussed in the first issue of the German magazine, Zero, the outlet for the Zero art group, in particular, Otto Piene, who continues to divide his time between Cambridge, Mass. and Dusseldorf.

In evolving to forms of abstract art while a student of Beuys, the author states that, “Palermo was entering that mysterious, ‘zero area,’ that Piene had hesitantly described as the ‘possibility for a new beginning’ or as a staggering miraculous ‘transformation of the old into the new.’ The two things were different and to some extent contradictory.” It would have been helpful to know more about a direct connection between the young Palermo and the older Piene and Group Zero.
The seminal breakthrough work was Palermo’s, Komposition mit 8 roten Rechtecken, or, Composition with Eight Red Squares, 1964. This painting was included in the London show. The paint is thin and ephemeral. One observes pencil lines on the canvas marking off the painted red squares on a white background. The overall impression of the work is delicate and fragile. It was a copy of a work by the Russian artist, Kasimir Malevich.

It is discussed that Beuys had the ambition to start over, with a clean slate. To teach and build his students from the ground up. To reference Piene's concept and philosophy, to start from zero. This is key to understanding Palermo’s response of Beuys. Gonzalez Garcia describes the young student, formerly under the tutelage of the discredited, “Grumo.” He writes that, “…Undoubtedly, Komposition mit 8 roten Rechtecken is a ‘suprematist game’, though much more elementary than The History of Two Squares that El Lissitsky designed for the children of the ‘suprematist sect.’ That’s why it didn’t bother Beuys; after all, Palermo was still at elementary school. And, indeed, to become a ‘modern painter’ he had to start from what was most elementary: monochrome. That’s how he ‘taught pictures’ to his confused young students: by teaching them what was most modern at that time…”

The notion is Palermo as more, “elementary.” He is discussed as the most pliant and docile of the Beuys students, which makes interesting comparisons to Richter and Polke who are less firmly connected to Beuys. They were actually primarily involved with other teachers. This conveys the notion of Palermo as a kind of naïf. A simple, modest artist finding his own way out from under such a dominating teacher and mentor/ tormentor.

So the emergence of Palermo as an influential, avant-garde artist remains an enigma. Unless, perhaps, he had so totally absorbed the spirit of Beuys that he was empowered to find an unique inner self. As a shell shocked, Keller Kinder, and, Dead Artists, through Beuys, arguably, he was born again as one of the most original artists of his generation.

This assertion is verified by the work. Most significantly with the, Stoffbilder, or fabric works, starting with his first show, in 1966, and continued through 1972. The artist apparently destroyed those first efforts to stretch found fabric to form bands of monochromatic color simulating the kind of painting that one associates with artists from Mark Rothko, to Ellsworth Kelly, and Brice Marden. Some 56 of these fragile fabric paintings have survived. Encountering them in London was remarkable. Their matte surfaces were initially puzzling. Just how did the artist manage to apply such flat and even color, seemingly stained into the fabric? Prolonged, intense examination of the works revealed some of their subtle secrets. They are amazingly beautiful works. Again, this unique use of found fabric raises questions about a similar practice in works by Polke who often used patterned commercial fabrics as a support for painted figuration. It would have been helpful for the essayists to clarify the sequence of this relationship between the two artists.

The most daunting aspect of Palermo’s oeuvre involves his wall painting projects. The exhibition included a critical mass of documentation but there appears to be no surviving projects. Unlike Lewitt’s wall pieces for which “owners” retain the plans and rights to reproduce them. In that sense, the projects of Palermo are now lost to us. They belong to the archaeology of art history. This dooms us to relegate this important innovation and contribution to “footnotes.”

The most troubling aspect of this review is that there will be no opportunity for an American audience to share in this experience. Indeed, why cover an exhibition that is now closed and will not travel. That limits the appeal and audience for this writing. Truth is there will probably never again be an occasion to treat this important artist and work in any depth. That’s why this London exhibition was both inspiring and, ultimately, terribly disappointing. As I have attempted to detail it was a challenging but squandered opportunity.