Colorful Character: Discover Blinky Palermo at the Hirshhorn

Wikimedia Commons

It's easy to be dismissive of minimalist artworks. Paintings of straight lines and geometric shapes can certainly frustrate viewers who prefer the aesthetics of more representational pieces. I heard the usual cynical comments while perusing the new exhibition, Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977, now open at the Hirshhorn.

"Dude, what is this?" "Why is this even in a museum" "I have paint. I have a ruler. Can I get a exhibition?"

Blinky Palermo is a challenging show. The visitor is confronted with white walls that set off brightly colored geometric forms. There are few labels and benches to distract from the works. The show is divided into three seemingly biographical parts: the first section consists of objects from the artist's time when he came of age as an artist in Germany, the second concerns photos and sketches of site-specific pieces and the third section is works from the artist's time that he spent living in New York.

The artist, himself, is almost as illusive and complicated as his art. First, his name. Originally, he was Peter Schwarze. Adopted as an infant with his twin brother Michael, he became Peter Heisterkamp. But in the early 1960s, when he met Joseph Beuys and joined that great 20th-century artist's class at the Dusseldorf Art Academy, Heisterkamp either was given the name or took the name of the Philadelphia mobster boss Blinky Palermo. (Frank "Blinky" Palermo was a 5-foot-tall, all-around bad guy--a Philadelphia mobster who was indicted, convicted and sentenced to federal prison, and who served 7 and a half years of a 15-year sentence for fight fixing and running an illegal numbers game throughout the 1940s and 1960s. )

Blinky, the artist, grew up in Germany. "But he was fascinated with America," curator Evelyn Hankins told fellow ATM reporter Arcynta Ali Childs.  And after a visit to New York in 1970 with Gerhard Richter, her returned in 1973 and set up a studio in Manhattan. And in that short four-year period before he died mysteriously--perhaps of a heart condition, while vacationing in the Maldives--Blinky Palermo titled many of his works with names of places in New York City--Wooster Street, Coney Island, 14th Street. The title of a 1976 work of 39 aluminum panels painted in red, yellow and black, "To the People of New York City" (above), obviously expresses his affection for his adopted home.

It's hard to peg Blinky to any one type of art, abstract, or art period, post World War II. His influences are as international, Piet Mondrian and Marcel Broodthaers, as they are American, Mark Rothko and Barnet Newman.

As Hankins says us. "Everything does, you can see the handmade-ness of it." In 2003, British critic Adrian Searle defined Palermo's art as "restrained poetry."

The work "Schmettling II (Butterfly II)," is a fascinating three dimensional painting and relief sculpture that, alas, loses its magic in any photo. (So go see the show!) The 'body' of the 'butterfly' is made of a nonstandard plank of wood, painted black on its front face and red on its sides. The resulting effect is that of an ever-changing piece that twists and reveals vibrant reds as the viewer moves around it.

"Mirror Object" may appear flat black and white, but is actually made of two three-dimensional triangles, one of soft black and one of reflective metal. The reflectiveness of the piece is surprising. First appearing white, due to the gallery walls, but then reflecting a plethora of color from the works displayed on the other walls.

Many of Palermo's pieces invite exploration from various angles and distances. How else could one discover that "Untitled," from 1967, is actually oil paint on linen stretched over a found chalkboard? The works may largely consist of painted geometry, but the unconventional materials and slight off-ness of the pieces give a quirky character to the show and illuminates the character of the painter.

In that regard, the show shares similarities with the Hirshhorn's retrospective last summer of another artist taken before his time, "Yves Klein."  Coincidentally, both artists died at 34 just 15 years apart.

"’s considered to be an artist’s artist," says Hankins, "because he’s really interested in kind of the expressive possibilities and limitations of painting."

"His was an art with a calm, clear voice," wrote Searle, "though it often said quite complicated things."

This is the first American retrospective of Palermo's work and many of these pieces are borrowed from European collections that have never been seen in the United States.  Explore the colorful expressions of Blinky now through May 15, 2011.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.