By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; T18
Unless you've been to the Dia:Beacon museum outside of New York or received a personal tour of Julian Schnabel's art collection, it's unlikely you've ever encountered the work of Blinky Palermo.
With a name like that, you'd remember if you had.
Palermo was a German-born post-war painter who ran with the greats: In Dusseldorf, he was a student of the seminal German performance artist Joseph Beuys and a contemporary of painter Gerhard Richter. The artist also spent three important years in New York, soaking up the expressionist style of Mark Rothko and minimalism of Robert Ryman, developing a reputation as an "artist's artist."
So how did he manage to fade so far out of the American art consciousness?
Palermo died in 1977, and afterward, his work didn't much cross the Atlantic; most of it, in fact, remains in the possession of private collectors and museums in Europe.
Until now. This week, the Hirshhorn unveiled "Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977," an overview of the artist's short career that's all the more significant because it's the first such exhibition of Palermo's work in the United States.
Organized under the auspices of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and the Dia Art Foundation by former Dia curator Lynne Cooke, the exhibit is making its way to a few big museums - in Los Angeles, Washington and upstate New York - drumming up the Palermo buzz in its wake.
Such efforts to reawaken interest in artists are hardly unusual; Palermo's German cohort in particular has been the subject of PR campaigns in recent years (see: Yves Klein, Kurt Schwitters, Richter).
Sometimes, retrospectives around lesser-known artists can feel crass, as artworks by those artists become exponentially more valuable after such exhibitions. But in the case of many artists of Palermo's circle, contemporary art seemed to become a little richer with each revival.
And that is how we should view "Blinky Palermo: Retrospective." Though Palermo died in the Maldives at just 33 (of causes that often are referred to as "mysterious" but widely acknowledged as related to Palermo's drug use), in his short career, he was a major player in post-war European art.
As a painter, he never wavered, even as his contemporaries dabbled with emerging media. Yet Palermo was acutely connected to them in his zeal for deconstruction and investigation. (Beuys famously said his student had "porosity.") His career was a ceaseless experiment - painting that set out to defy painting.
Pinpointing each new revelation in that search is what "Blinky Palermo: Retrospective" does expertly.
Opening the exhibition is an early work "Composition With 8 Red Rectangles" (1964), that plays with concepts of color and form and certainly owes some due to Piet Mondrian. (Flat windowpane-like paintings Palermo did later on the walls of art galleries recall the Dutch De Stijl painter.) Yet all the elements of conventional painting remain, from the rectangular canvases to the paint to the static mounting on the wall.
Almost immediately come the first experiments - bold slashes of yellow on black-and-white canvases, and a well-known scarlet painting known as "Blue Bridge," whose forms vigorously press against the edges of their canvases, as if trying to break free.
Turn a corner and you're confronted by a world in which the forms have won (or, better, Palermo has unchained them). He begins to wrap his canvases over wood or paint wood alone to form circles and irregular shapes; paintings in the shape of triangles became a regular motif. From afar, the objects, as they're known, look like sculpture.
A fine example is "Butterfly II" (1969), a virtual splinter of painted wood set off by a wing-like canvas. Its imperfections - the unfinished surface of the wood, the almost expressionistic slap of paint that ensures all of Palermo's work lands firmly in the realm of painting - beg for a closer look. There is a handmade quality there; it appears again and again in this retrospective, an M.O. of Palermo's that Cooke, the curator, calls "quirky."
More challenges to painterly conventions follow. Crisp, large-scale "paintings" upon closer inspection reveal themselves to be only connected panels of colored cotton, purchased, as it turns out, from a department store. First, the works, which won Palermo wide recognition, provoke a giggle. Then they provoke a larger question: If it looks like a painting, stirs us like a painting, is it a painting?
The answer, Palermo clearly knew, is an undeniable yes.
The show concludes, like Palermo's life, with abruptness. He had begun to paint on aluminum, though heavy brush strokes and colors that Cooke explains are fundamentally European ward off any inclination to describe them as industrial. It's in that mode that the artist produced a large-scale work, "To the People of New York City," a love letter composed of 40 aluminum panels painted in the red, yellow and black shades of the German flag, but ever changing in pattern.
The final pieces, including a tall aluminium piece now in the collection of Palermo's friend, the artist and filmmaker Schnabel, veer off again, indicating that yet another transformation was ahead.
It's these works that make Cooke particularly wistful. "I think painting would be different if he had stayed alive," she says. "I think he was remarkably fertile and inventive. There really was no one like him."
Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977 Through May 15 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (L'Enfant Plaza). www.hirshhorn.si.edu. 202-633-1000. Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily. A tour of the galleries, led by Joshua Shannon of the University of Maryland, is at 12:30 p.m. March 4. Admission: Free.