Feature

Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964–1977

The German-born artist's paintings of circles, squares, triangles, and more-irregular shapes pushed painting very close to its theoretical limits.

Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.
Through May 15

Blinky Palermo’s short career was “a ceaseless experiment,” said Lavanya Ramanathan in The Washington Post. Remembered in Europe as a major player in postwar art, he died at 33, in 1977, though not before pushing painting very close to its theoretical limits. This “expertly” curated show, which is nearing the end of a yearlong American tour, lets us watch how the subversive bent of this German-born artist played out. The early works are fairly conventional abstract paintings that recall Piet Mondrian. But soon enough, the artist’s iconoclasm takes off in earnest. Turn a corner and you’re confronted by a world in which the monochromatic geometric forms of the early canvases have been “unchained”: His paintings have become a collection of circles, squares, and triangles, as well as more-irregular shapes. “From afar, the objects, as they’re known, look like sculpture.” But get close to a work like Butterfly II (1969)—a pairing of a painted stick with a small wing-like canvas—and you’ll notice a handmade quality that keeps it “firmly in the realm of painting.”

But Palermo hadn’t shown the last of his “endgame moves,” said Blake Gopnik in TheDailyBeast.com. His most radical assault on painting came in the form of his so-called Fabric Pictures, which are “nothing more than a few stripes of color set side by side, or even one color stretching edge to edge.” At first glance, these pared-down paintings look like garden-variety minimalism—think Barnett Newman, simplified even further. “The thing is, they aren’t painted.” Instead, they’re made completely from pre-dyed department-store fabric. “They help deflate the holier-than-thou pretensions of some earlier abstraction, as well as old clichés about the skilled hand of the painter and the fine eye of the colorist.” Yet herein lies the brilliance: Despite the theoretical monkeying around, “they also function as truly excellent abstractions.”

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