by Ezra Tessler
In a recent artist talk I included an image of Blinky Palermo’s Grey Disk without much thought. I had fallen in love with the piece years before and it related so closely to what I was thinking about in the studio that I assumed it needed little explanation. An audience member interrupted and asked in a bewildered tone why I liked it. I had no answer. Any effort to provide an answer seemed to undo much of what drew me to the piece in the first place: that it so succinctly uttered something deeply unutterable. Yet therein lay its original appeal for me. Grey Disk is small and wonky, but its sum is far greater than these qualities. For me, it is this idiosyncratic elusiveness that has continued after all these years to underline the potential for abstraction and the ethical and political dimensions of art making and viewing more generally. In that light, here’s my effort at a retroactive answer.
Palermo created Grey Disk in 1970 based on a series of silkscreens of basic geometric shapes that he made earlier that year. Casein paint on canvas on wood, the piece is slight – only ten and a half by five and a quarter inches. It protrudes three-quarters of an inch from the wall. Strangest of all given its wobbly contour, Palermo produced the piece in an edition of twenty, as if to underline its reproducible ordinariness. Grey Disk came after Palermo’s first foray into geometric shapes in the mid-1960s with the triangle. These triangles directly engaged the work of his teacher and mentor Beuys, fusing the mystical overtones of the occult with the radical hopes of the Suprematists.1 But unlike the connotations of the triangle – the shape was central to Kandinsky’s Theosophically-inclined view of the spiritual life of humankind – this disk is anything but pure.
Grey Disk is a flattened and distended oval, a solid shape with a precarious silhouette. A slender, awkward object, it suggests Palermo’s discomfort with the egocentric self-affirmation of the Abstract Expressionists. Today its childlike humor also feels like a rejoinder to the self-seriousness of Minimalism. Here is painting being prodded with a question and an answer and then another question. It continues painting’s evolving argument with the rectangle. As Robert Storr suggests, “tamper with the grid” and “the senses awaken” and “the imagination comes alive.”2 So it is with Grey Disk. For me this piece represents the best of extruded painting. Standing at the crux of two themes within the recent history of painting, it probes the relationship between surface and structure and between object and architecture.
Of course there is something much more immediate to Grey Disk that makes it difficult to shake. Not only does its equivocal form hover on the cusp of basic geometric legibility; its color also gives the object its quixotic and unnerving fleshiness. This weathered grey is the equivalent to the object’s shaky and imperfect contour. Grey Disk is banal and uncanny and really, really weird.
Once Grey Disk made its way into my mind I had a hard time not seeing it everywhere. Turn Grey Disk on its side and walk through the Met: there it is in the rounded-faces of the lifelike Roman funerary portraits painted in encaustic on wood, in the hand-carved cameos of the late nineteenth-century, and so on down the halls. Or leave it horizontal and think of nearly any painting. It mimics the golden orb of the kneecap at the center of Caravaggio’s Narcissus, the shape of Braque’s Violin and Music Score, the dark cutout oval in Picasso’s guitar sculptures, the black elliptical sphere in Dana Schutz’s Guitar Girl, the biomorphic shapes in Ron Gorchov’s pieces, and the swollen lumps of elephant dung in Chris Ofili’s work. It’s the bowl of fruit in every still life from Claesz to Matisse, the muted and dusty grey saucer in Morandi’s Natura Morta II, the skulls in seventeenth-century vanitas paintings, the ominous cloud covering Gerhard Richter’s Table and the carnal orifice of his Mouth. Cloud, face, saucer, saddle, stage, shield, palette – how can one begin to capture everything that it invokes?
Perhaps most directly Grey Disk emulates the business end of a handheld mirror. This emblem of self-absorption anchors some of my favorite portraits of the romantic tradition. Two redheads in particular stand out: Rossetti’s Lady Lilith and Courbet’s Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl, both painted around 1866. In both paintings the subject’s wistful gaze and extended shock of red hair point down and to the left side of the canvas, where the mirror angles the viewer’s eyes toward the lower center and back to her eyes again. But the viewer only sees the back of the mirror in each painting. As Michael Fried notes with regard to Jo, the mirror is both a platform for and obstacle to absorption.3 Ultimately, the mirror is the mechanism of the viewer’s self-consciousness as purveyor of beauty.
Yet the shadowy cloud of Grey Disk doesn’t require the circulating gaze to make this point. It harnesses the disquieting effect of the mirror directly into a kind of punctum. The mirror at the heart of Palermo’s piece not only makes explicit the self-critical space that the history of abstraction claims as its territory. Like Lichtenstein’s 1969 Mirror #1, Grey Disk demands that the viewer look at him or herself, not to determine whether the art object offers a good resemblance, but as a conduit to look beyond the self toward its constituent parts. The viewer moves simultaneously between the art object, the self, and the viewing context.
In the end, Grey Disk does what the best abstract art can do by saying what cannot be put into words. It’s hard not to think of Wittgenstein’s oft-repeated line: “if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be – unutterably – contained in what has been uttered.”4 Despite it all, we still try to make sense of how and why an aesthetic experience moves us. According to Kenneth Burke, only angels are able to understand each other perfectly. Here on earth, however, communication is messy and bound to come up short. One of the first steps is working to remove its external obstacles. That’s why abstraction paradoxically demands that we also think about social justice. For me, Palermo’s sad and funny little cloud proves elusive and honest, hovering like Klee’s Angelus Novus, wide-eyed and imploring.