Dia: Beacon, Beacon, NY, May 17, 2008 – ongoing
Up in Beacon, New York, during the early June heat wave, I stopped by Dia for some air conditioning and happened upon a two-gallery installation of 21 oddly-shaped 10-foot panels, each painted with a single, unmixed, straight out-of-the-tube color. Was this a series of lesser-known Ellsworth Kellys, or, more likely, yet another young artist “referencing” Kelly’s work? No. In fact, the monumental installation is a project created by German artist Imi Knoebel, inspired by paintings made by his friend Blinky Palermo in the Seventies. Originally presented at Heiner Friedrich’s Cologne gallery in 1977, the project was acquired by the Dia Art Foundation (co-founded by Friedrich) shortly thereafter. The panels remained in storage for 30 years, until, according to curator Lynne Cooke, Dia decided the time and circumstances were right to restage the installation. With financing from Gucci, the 68-year-old Knoebel, restored the panels and arranged the current site-specific installation, which constitutes at once Knoebel’s homage to Palermo and Palermo’s legacy to Knoebel. Yet as visually striking and technically accomplished as Dia’s Knoebel show is, it also reflects the aesthetic pitfalls and challenges of reconstituting past projects.
Friends in Art and Fact
Blinky Palermo and Imi Knoebel met at Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in the Sixties while studying with Joseph Beuys alongside Jörg Immendorff, Imi Giese, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter. Both Knoebel and Palermo were exploring art’s essential objectness, the importance of spatial arrangement, and dynamic installation strategy. Like other artists in both the United States and Germany, they earnestly aspired to change the course of art history. Knoebel, investigating the imageless areas between materiality, objectness, and arrangement, worked with unpainted fiberboard. Palermo was particularly interested in non-objective, semiotic color propositions.
In 1973 Palermo left Dusseldorf and moved to New York. On earlier visits, he had been somewhat intimidated by the New York art world, but this time, armed with contacts from his German dealers, he befriended many American painters and joined the strident debate between the Minimalists and the Abstract Expressionists about the nature and definition of painting. His iteration of geometric abstraction combined referential, non-objective color with dry humor and subtle emotional content. Although his work was often compared to Kelly’s, the handmade, quirky nature of Palermo’s small-scale objects set them apart from Kelly’s harmonious, polished works.
Palermo, known for his womanizing and heavy drinking, hit a rough creative patch when his stepfather died in 1974. Knoebel came to visit from Germany, and in a borrowed car they made a cross-country art pilgrimage, visiting Rothko’s Chapel in Houston and Walter DeMaria’s “Las Vegas Piece” and Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” in the Nevada desert. By the end of the trip, Palermo was able to get back to work in the studio. In 1976 he returned to Dusseldorf, where he created an ambitious multi-panel project (also currently installed at Dia), “To the People of New York,” in which fifteen groupings of small, individual metal panels are painted unsystematically with rectangular stripes of cadmium yellow, cadmium red, and black: the colors of the German flag. After completing the project, Palermo took a trip with his current girlfriend, Babett Scobel, to the Maldives, where he died mysteriously. He was only 33.
Conceptually, “24 Colors–For Blinky” is inspired. Situated in two long, narrow, side-by-side galleries, the installation defies full apprehension at a glance. The ten-foot panels are hung in six distinct groupings on the long outer walls of each gallery, compelling the viewer to walk through the narrow space and confront each grouping sequentially, as if in a formal receiving line as opposed to, say, a casual cocktail party. According to Cooke, Knoebel considered both size and shape when creating the six groupings that comprise the installation, but there’s no clearly identifiable system of organization.
Based on 30 years’ experience studying the emotional content inherent in visual relationships, Knoebel, although customarily precise and decisive, never articulated a strategy except to say that the colors and shapes should be so specific and individual that they preclude the ability of viewers, looking at them in sequence, to remember exactly what they are. And indeed, the purported impossibility of eidetic reconstruction is a poignant metaphor in the context of a memorial project.
Knoebel took the essential components of Palermo’s mostly small-scale work (color, shape, carefully conceived site-specific arrangement, subtle humor), and brilliantly incorporated them in a way that was both elegiac and celebratory, seamlessly fusing the aesthetic signatures of both artists. Although the color sensibility is completely Palermo’s, the careful construction, stacking, and enormity of scale recapitulates Knoebel’s earlier work with fiberboard. To accompany “24 Colors,” Dia invited artist Helen Mirra to install another Dia acquisition, Knoebel’s 1968 piece “Room 19,” composed of 77 wood and fiberboard components, stacked and arranged like furniture in a dim storage room. The objects, simply presented in their time-worn condition—dented, darkened, and water-stained—illuminate how Knoebel’s previously monochromatic approach had evolved in the execution of “24 Colors.” As if possessed by Palermo’s spirit, color investigation became Knoebel’s predominant focus for the next three decades.
It was the pristine condition and exacting craftsmanship of the panels in “24 Colors” that initially caused me to misidentify the work as Ellsworth Kelly’s. The individual panels, projecting four inches from the wall, are handsomely crafted from sheets of wood and two-by-fours, and the wide, steady brushwork has a uniform semi-circular pattern. Some panels are shaped into cartoonish splats, others into somber near-rectangular voids, still others into jerky letters of the alphabet. All, however, are unidentifiable as objects, images, or familiar symbols. The clear, bright colors are flatly opaque; the large brushstrokes seem mechanically applied. The brighter colors, if looked at for too long, play tricks on the eye. By studying the shinier black panels closely, one discerns layers of color and apprehends depth, as if gazing into the ocean.
Upon further inquiry, I learned that the panels weren’t merely restored. Rather, each was reconstructed from scratch. According to Cooke, the original panels, made when Knoebel lacked both the financial resources necessary to work with the best materials and the technical expertise to complete such an ambitious project, had warped and faded. Knoebel himself, of course, supervised and approved the remaking of his 30-year-old paintings. No doubt he saw Dia’s enterprise as a sterling opportunity to improve art that he made as a young, relatively poor emerging artist through the hindsight of a seasoned artist and the resources of a well-funded museum. Understandably, he took advantage of that opportunity.
At the same time, the wholesale recreation of Knoebel’s paintings has purged them of a not insubstantial measure of their authenticity. Remaking Donald Judd’s plywood boxes, say, or Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light installations does not detract from their real or intended artistic import because the visible subtlety of the artist’s hand is not germane to the aesthetic experience of viewing the work. But a painting itself perceptibly reflects the artist’s creative process, and cannot be reconstructed without effacing the artist’s original experience of making the piece. In painting, the aging and wear inevitably revealed over time metaphorically converts the artist’s contemporaneous emotions into emotional memories. Furthermore, only original artworks can fully reflect the artist’s intellectual and aesthetic interpretation of the other artists who have influenced him. For these reasons, Knoebel’s recreated paintings leave me with an unrequited wistfulness for the primal objects. I want to see the originals, warts and all, and thus to have the chance to divine more viscerally and directly both Knoebel’s feelings for Palermo and his understanding and internalization of Palermo’s artmaking ideas and strategies.
By merely presenting the recreated paintings, Dia truncates what was, in 1977, a heartfelt memorial to Blinky Palermo and a seminal project in Imi Knoebel’s career into a buff, high-priced replica of each. That has some value in itself. But the show would have been far richer had a few of the originals been displayed alongside the recreations, taking us back to the time when Knoebel was both honing his art and mourning the death of a friend. Would he have objected to that?