Considered the magnum opus of a career the critic Peter Schjeldahl deems "furiously intelligent and beautiful," Palermo’s To the People of New York City (1976) is on view this month at Dia:Chelsea, New York. The work consists of a fifteen-part sequence of forty aluminum panels, their abstract red, yellow, and black color combinations. To the People of New York City is part of Palermo’s Metal Pictures series, which the artist started while living in New York from 1973 to 1976. Completed on his return to Düsseldorf in late 1976, the work was discovered in the artist’s studio after his death in early 1977, and titled posthumously after a dedication he had written on the backs of the panels.
To the People of New York City remains an enigmatic work, its bands of color possibly referencing paintings by Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, its compositional rhythm echoing the jazz performances that Palermo sought out during his time in New York. "Broadly held together by its narrowly restricted color scheme," curator Lynne Cooke writes in the introduction to a dedicated book on the work that was published in 2009, “this anomalous sequence of elements, differentiated sometimes by size and sometimes by proportion, posits a unity that does not entail wholeness. . . . Attempts to decipher the layered network of relations between the component parts becomes a gambit, a way of engaging the viewer with real space and actual time and, so, creating an experience of place." Joseph Beuys, who taught the artist at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and became a close friend, offered the following reflections on visiting an exhibition by Palermo: "He was here, the colors and forms appeared, then he went away again. . . . One ought to see his paintings more like a breath that comes and goes, it has something porous, and it can easily vanish again."
In addition to the paintings on aluminum, this exhibition includes studies in watercolor and felt pen on paper that show how Palermo developed the arrangement of the panels.
Image: Palermo, To the People of New York City (Part IX), 1976. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York