ColorForms and Blinky Palermo at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC

por: Ralph Vazquez

The optical incident as phenomenon is at the core of the ColorForms and Blinky Palermo retrospective, on view now at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. Both expositions explore the nature of color, form and the rhetorical elasticity of those two concepts. To the seekers of the art spectacle these exhibits may prove to have an almost anemic cohesion; both are of delicate sophistication and propound a discursive depth to an almost spiritual stratum of thought. Both exhibits recant the Modern tenet that painting, or any art form at any rate, imposes a fixed set of aesthetic limitations.

Thanks to the Palermo retrospective of his works produced between the years 1964 to 1977 (this would be the first mayor retrospective of this originally German artist in America) we can explore how he, like Frank Stella, Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd and other contemporaries approached color as surface, and particularly how he helped transform the understanding of process and the relevancy of alternative construction in the art making enterprise. Palermo helped move painting towards what the art critic Michael Fried coined as ‘objecthood’, and that last comment having been originally used to describe the work of Stella constitutes yet another point of comparison between Palermo and the notoriously bratty and passionate New York painter. The exhibit proves though that, unlike Stella, Palermo requires no explanatory contortionism, and that in many ways the very recognition of their formal simplicity will suffice.

Blinky Palermo Exhibition Floor Video

In the ColorForms exhibit we see a broad variety of very captivating works, each engaging the optical mechanism of the onlooker on a very dynamic and profound level. More than mere optical illusions or deceptions the works included engrained with one another seamlessly, like a constellation of modalities that ‘attack’ our visual perceptual mechanism rather than just stand by and wait until a spectator props themselves in front of them.

ColorForms exhibition wall text

The most powerful illusion was that correspondent to the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967). Titled Round Rainbow (2005) the environmental work makes you feel inside a Victorian zoetrope almost, creating beautiful designs of light and slowly delivering the promise of a round rainbow that forms on the museum wall.

The most mysterious would definitely have to be James Turrell’s (b. 1943)  Milk Run (1996). The experience is a visual paradox created through a very complex process of light manipulation using light projection of fluorescent tubes and colored gel. The result is an arcane environment characteristic of Turrell that seduces you to the point of no return or event horizon; the installation draws you in like a black hole and in that darkness, all of a sudden, photonic gymnastics occur.

Among the most compelling works were Anish Kapoor’s (b. 1954) At the Hub of Things (1987), Richard Serra’s (b. 1939) Balance (1972) and Fred Sandback’s (b. 1943, d. 2003) Untitled (Sculptural Study, Twelve-Part Vertical Construction) (1990). These works especially titillated imaginations on the very nature of color as form; they really do synthesize and illustrate the central subject matter of the ColorForms exhibition.

Anish Kapoor, At the Hub of Things (1987)

Richard Serra, Balance (1972)

Fred Sandback, Untitled (1990)

The Palermo retrospective fit in perfectly with this last exhibit. His art, produced in the midst of the minimal and conceptual rise against Modernist thought on color and form, embodies the very spirit of the period, and echoes the fundamental notions of color, space and form as expressed by Stella, Reinhardt and Judd. These latter were among the architects of minimal and conceptual theory and overall aesthetics, in spite of the attempts at being defused by the homme fatal and working art critic at the time Clement Greenberg and his ‘evil eye’. The latter’s seemingly ambivalent and selective support of ‘all-overness’ and ‘flatness’ made him a devil’s advocate figure in the face of the substitution of purely Modern ideologies with hybrid theories on aesthetics and art-making.

All the works in both exhibits express a complex internal relationship between color and form, and both squeeze both content and formal rhetoric out of the two concepts. From Eliasson’s magisterial use of light to collide both color and form in a singular environment to Palermo’s installation sketches both exhibits are a veritable feast for the eye, and run the gamut from the delicate to the dramatic.

In conclusion about Palermo’s retrospective one must admit the works included perfectly illustrate Don Judd’s belief that “both painting and sculpture are inherently illusionistic and should be superseded by the creation of ‘specific objects’ in literal space.” Palermo’s work speaks to this approach and even leaves a lingering desire to see more. His life was short but powerful. Attending this retrospective even Michael Fried himself would have to celebrate Palermo’s achievement of the non-referential.

It is important to note for the record that Blinky Palermo’s ‘organic sublime’ is not reductionist, at least not any more than it is in favor of Judd and Stella’s aesthetic arguments in favor of the non-relational. According to John Hopkins their impact, like Palermo’s, reside in their steep rejection of the ‘composed’ or the ‘arty’. The laureate painter was not reaching for any ‘core’; he was doing away with the rational approach to painting, exercising and incredibly free license to appropriate and to transform; what his mentor and friend, the artist Joseph Beuys, called ‘porosity’. This reference to the ‘porous’ was almost prophetic of what was to happen to art rhetoric and practice in the decades to follow Palermo’s death in 1977, leading all the way to today’s melee of approaches to ‘established’ art practices and rhetorical points of argumentative engagement.

What is true is that Palermo’s work speaks to painting’s resilience towards fixed values, and his oeuvre is a monument to alternative dynamism in aesthetes.

We must believe what we know and what we know is that color and form, as well as all that can be said of them, is far from over. Color and form are forever.

Angel Rafael “Ralph” Vázquez-Concepción

Curator, Artist and Journalist

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