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No common thread runs throughout his work — his style, inspiration and intent are largely unknown. Palermo, who died suddenly at the age of 33, refused interviews and wrote little to satisfy the curiosities of those intrigued by his quirkiness.
“There was not a predetermined logic that you could spell out,” Cooke said. “There was no strict, systemic approach.”
Nevertheless, the work in the exhibition clearly belongs to the same cheeky artist. Both his superb sense of color and his sense of humor distinguish him from his peers. Unlike his contemporaries, he also allows his process and painterly expression to show in his finished pieces.
“He wasn’t trying to get the pristine finish of Ellsworth Kelly,” Cooke said. “These are made works.”
Palermo’s fame — and his ability to inspire — likely stems as much from his attitude as his work. Resistant to commercialism and willing to flout conventional wisdom, Palermo remained committed to painting when others abandoned it.
Along with his quirky humor, Palermo’s independent streak is emphasized in the Hirshhorn retrospective. Palermo “never really bothered with what people were telling him about what he should be doing,” Cooke said.
The exhibit runs through May 15. The Hirshhorn’s spring After Hours event will celebrate the exhibit with gallery talks, music and special performances on April 29.