Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Through January 16th, 2011
(Reprinted from Artslant.com)
Blinky Palermo was born Peter Schwarze in 1943, subsequently adopted he became Peter Heisterkamp. And, as far as I know, there are at least two origin stories for why, around 1964, his name changed again to Blinky Palermo.
First, some say his teacher Joseph Beuys gave him the moniker because of Heisterkamp’s resemblance to the famous gangster and boxing promoter (Beuys loved boxing), and this makes a certain amount of sense: origin myths and the magic of names (his name especially) were central to the elder artist’s practice.
Beuys was the master of the Kunstacademie Düsseldorf, the most famous living German artist, and, not the least, a diva. I can imagine Beuys, from his figurative height atop the apex of German art, bestowing the nom de guerre “Blinky Palermo” onto Heisterkamp, along with it the secrets of the artist as, in Beuys' words, both “shaman and showman.” It was as if Beuys was trying to bring his student Heisterkamp into a type of artmaking where your name and art practice become ever more massive, appropriating the myths and history of the German past, concocting new myths, and asking for everything. What was expected was nothing less than a complete transformation, starting with the personal and concluding in political revolution.
Think of Anselm Kiefer (two years younger than Palermo), and how more than anything else, his self-portrait and personality are the origin and center-point of his oeuvre. Beuys and Kiefer are part of a German cult of personality rooted in the stridently romantic Teutonic past, where a lyric poet or an opera composer could unlock the secrets of the universe and heal the world.
Viewing Palermo’s work at LACMA, however, the other story of how Heisterkamp became Palermo becomes more probable. This story holds that he came up with name in his studio, alongside his friend and studio mate, Klaus Wolf Knoebel. Klaus Wolf had already changed his first name to “Imi,” after a shortened form of goodbye he shared with his friends prior to studying in Düsseldorf. Both epithets in this version are more friendly nicknames and less career posturing stage names.
The two young artists were influenced heavily by Beuys, but in important ways were removed from him and had different values. Knoebel, for a case in point, later occupied the classroom next to Beuys, and Knoebel’s room 19 (his first major work being even called Raum 19, 1968) becoming an intellectual counterpoint to the activities of Beuys’ room 20. Knoebel and Palermo had other interests in mind than mythology that would grow their names into out-sized egos that Deutschland could rally behind.
Though this may have shifted later on for Knoebel, they wanted something more humble, more ethereal, more fun, an art that neither needed to become a political party nor needed to unify the universe. In fact, looking at LACMA’s important presentation of Palermo (along with several works by Knoebel and Gunther Forg for comparison), it is wonderful to take in just how basic Palermo is and how un-ambitious his project is as an artist.
While Beuys would make a metaphysical postulations about primal conditions of heat and conservation, Palermo just seems to ask questions like, “Can I get something from the Utopian forms of Malevich without buying into his mysticism?” or “Can I just have the dynamism of basic shapes playing intuitively on a canvas, sensing a purpose in the play yet not needing a reason?” Palermo’s funky result is Composition with 8 Red Rectangles, 1964.
When Kiefer is walking Germany, taking pictures of himself in the compromised poses of the Third Reich, wanting to boldly address the very raw and recent past, Palermo asks if there a tonal, jazzy way to make a connection between two roughly drawn triangles as in Devoted to Thelonious Monk, 1969. Palermo wants the essential intuitive energy of basics and fusses over the details in order to achieve it.
I don’t use the phrase un-ambitious in a derogatory way, instead Palermo’s inquisitive, almost philosophical lack of ambition, his ability to take art to its rudimentary starting points and discover invention in those humble beginnings is exactly what makes him charming. There are no wails and grinding of teeth, no existential dilemmas. Actually, what is strangely present is a bit of comedy, mostly as the expense of American modernists.
Palermo, for instance, admitted an interest in moody Americans such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, eventually moving to New York in 1973 and living there for two and a half years, longing for a formal modernism whose sun had set. However, the spirit with which he approached figures like Newman and Rothko is with a playful spirit, as in works such as Time of Day I, 1974-75.
Both Newman and Rothko would have probably balked at the achievement of Palermo in the largest room of the LACMA exhibition, where he used purchased fabric to mimic painting, offering expanses of color and wispy transitions of hues. They smack of a Duchampian joke on Newman and Rothko yet they have the visual impact, they have the punch. That they are cloth and not paint is no matter to Palermo. “I believe in you guys,” he seems to be saying, “just allow me to find your beauty in things other than paint.”
LACMA is full of these charming moments (charm being a word easy to use with Palermo), tracking his early explorations into his larger cloth works (the highlight of the show), into his later paintings on aluminum (which American audiences know from Dia). Palermo is delightfully relevant to, but different from, both his German peers as well as the American artists he admired.
Maybe Heisterkamp liked “Blinky Palermo” because it’s a jazzy name just like often his paintings and arrangements can be jazzy. Ultimately, Palermo strikes me as wide eyed and into America in the way that Piet Mondrian was in Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, interested in relaxing formal concerns in order to pick up the pulse of things, the feeling of surroundings.
This explanation seems just as likely as anything else.