Blinky Palermo was the third name taken by a troubled artist born as Peter Schwarze in Leipzig in 1944, in what would shortly become East Germany. He and his twin brother, adopted as infants by a family named Heisterkamp, were then given that name. The family soon moved to the West German city of Munster, where Palermo’s adoptive mother fell seriously ill and died when the boy was fifteen.
The artist chose his new name, Blinky Palermo, in 1964 when he entered Joseph Beuys’s class at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf. Beuys told him that his second name, “Peter Heisterkamp” would not work in the 60s art world. Palermo’s friends had joked that he looked like Frank “Blinky” Palermo, heavyweight fighter Sonny Liston’s manager.
Joseph Beuys’s, the notorious German conceptualist and Dadaist theorist, remembered Palermo as an artist who “left behind a fragment in which one can nevertheless feel the impulsethe impulse of the era.”
Essentially a brightly colored geometric minimalist, stripe and color field painter, very much in step with the abstract geometric fashion of the day, Palermo created four distinct bodies of work. In his “Stoffbilder,” the so-called cloth pictures, Palermo would shop local department stores for lengths of commercially dyed monochrome cloth. He would have two or three of these sewn together (initially by his first wife, Ingrid) and then mount the joined bands on stretchers usually measuring two by two meters (roughly six feet six inches square). The cloth pictures convey Palermo’s passion for color and its combinations: bright blue and red; orange and dark blue; pink, orange and black; light blue, green and red.
The palette became more vivid over the years, especially as combinations of three colors pushed aside the simpler pairs, but Palermo carefully orchestrated the works’ installation to let more subdued combinations radiate as well. In a one-man show at the Konrad Fischer gallery in Dusseldorf in 1968, for example, he alternated pictures made of intense and bright hues with more restrained ones. The fabrics were common stock at a time when bold colors dominated interior decoration, clothing and advertising.
The cloth pictures were large in size and installed low, about a foot from the floor. His first had vertical divisions that he soon gave up, perhaps because he liked the landscape allusion of the horizontal line. Palermo followed the modernist dictum of flatness and “purity.” His colorful, flat, blank canvases, seem to typify the “American” look, which positioned the work well for German collectors, who were at the time emptying their wallets for art made in the USA. Clement Greenberg stated that “a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture though not necessarily as a successful one.”
Palermo’s second group of works included nearly thirty directly painted on walls. He drew lines on architectural surfaces or covered them with monochromatic fields of color, often highlighting spatial characteristics of a room or adding ornamental features. Made over a five year period beginning in late 1968, the wall paintings largely overlap the sewn paintings.
When an artist friend of Palermo’s named Richter, a sculptor, had a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the Spring of 2002, two busts the artist had made of himself and Palermo were lined up. But this exhibition did not have the latter’s four, ochre-painted walls that surrounded these sculptures in a collaborative exhibition with Richter at the Heiner Friedrich Gallery in Cologne in 1971.
Richter has supervised a complete, permanent reconstruction at the Lenbachhaus in Munich. A Palermo exhibition in November 2002 at Barcelona’s Museu d’Art Contemporani re-fabricated a wall installation that Palermo made at the Venice Biennale of 1976. Others were recently remade at the Frankfurt Kunstverein and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, England.
Palermo was often invited to participate in exhibitions of “environments” that boomed in Europe during this period, where artists, in Happening-like episodes, filled rooms with fog or foam rubber.
Blinky Palermo moved to New York in 1973, four years before his death. While many of his German contemporaries felt threatened by invading American art, Palermo responded to it, introducing a number of his Dusseldorf friends, including Richter, to the big names of New York painting.
In New York, he moved to painting acrylics on metal, his third group of works. A painting like “Times of the Day I” is an example of his serial structures usually comprising four rectangular aluminum panels mounted away from the wall and at large intervals from one another. Applying intense acrylic colors with fairly visible brushstrokes, Palermo painted horizontal bands at the top and bottom of each panel to frame a central field.
His “objects” are the fourth aspect of his work, a group of works he made off and on throughout his career, from his first days with Beuys to the end of his life. Among such works are wooden staffs, either painted or wrapped in painted canvas.
Palermo, a charming womanizer who lived only thirty-three years, was notoriously quiet in public, and especially reserved about his art. There were problems with alcohol and drugs, and he died in 1977 on the remote Maldive island of Kurumba.
Christine Mehring, Artforum, October 2002
Biography from the Archives of AskART.