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The Hirshhorn’s newest exhibition almost begs its audience to jump around. Eyes bounce from one playful shape to another and feet seem to rush around each corner searching for the next surprise.
The whimsy, normally out of place in an art museum, comes naturally for Blinky Palermo, a German abstract expressionist with an unusually sophisticated sense of humor. “Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977,” a new exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum, traces the evolution of the artist’s vision through more than 70 of his most famous works, a third of which have never before been shown in the U.S.
Fascinated with the work of predecessors such as Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko, Palermo spent his career exploring the notion of painting, questioning its materials, format and structure.
Born Peter Schwarze and raised with the name of his adoptive family, Heisterkamp, Palermo adopted his artistic moniker while attending art school in Düsseldorf, Germany. The original Palermo, whom the artist resembled, was an American boxing manager and mobster.
While still a student, Palermo began a series he called “Objects,” thick, painted geometric shapes — usually uneven and seemingly cut from scraps or found material — that blur the line between painting and sculpture. Each is quirky; bright, contrasting colors jump from the white walls of the gallery, seemingly in dialogue with the other “objects” and gallery-goers in the room. In some, the gestural brush strokes leave little doubt to the genre, but other “paintings” in the series have no paint — fabric and tape instead lend texture and color to their surfaces.
Palermo often challenged those notions of painting. From “Objects” he moved on to a series of “Stoffbilder,” or cloth pictures. Broad expanses of colored fabric cover huge canvases in a playfully ironic nod to — or perhaps, a jab at — Rothko’s more serious and more famous paintings. In one, he hangs a mustard yellow cloth above an identically colored canvas — mischievously calling attention to the similarities between the two while emphasizing the subtle differences.
Long intrigued by American culture, Palermo relocated to Manhattan in 1973. He began to paint on metal, segmenting two-color compositions and anchoring them off the wall to animate the gallery. The style culminated in his most monumental work, “To the People of New York City” (1976), a set of 39 panels composed entirely of red, black and yellow — the colors of the German flag.
“He was a European responding to American notions of surreality and form, engaged with American discourse but also external to it,” said Lynne Cooke, the exhibition’s curator.
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.