at the Arts Club of Chicago, through June 30

The visitor to the exhibit of works by Blinky Palermo, Bruce Nauman, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler at the Arts Club of Chicago will likely be struck by how different each artist seems from the others. What could Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s photographs of his bizarre performances, his body swathed in bandages, possibly have to do with Blinky Palermo’s drawings of simple geometric forms?

In his short catalog essay, curator Hubert Klocker argues that “it is in the magic triangle of space-proportions-bodies that they converge.” Each artist’s work, either through direct inclusion of the human body or by making environments of similar scale, focuses on “human existence.” But the small selections presented of each artist’s work are so different from each other in subject matter, form, and emotional tone that the show worked best for me when I focused on the way these differences illuminated the nature of each artist’s enterprise.

Schwarzkogler is represented by seven highly enigmatic drawings, some of them apparently sketches of planned performances, and three groups of photographs documenting performances. He was one of the four main practitioners of Viennese Actionism, a late-60s movement whose “actions” included animal slaughter, defecation, and self-mutilation, much of it presumably in the 60s spirit of breaking rules and attacking bourgeois conventions.

Schwarzkogler, if documentary evidence can be relied on, was the austere, disciplined formalist of this group. His actions, unlike those of his colleagues, were not usually open to the public but were performed in front of a small audience of invited friends. In his last performance, Aktion #6, documented in six photographs in this exhibit, Schwarzkogler, the sole performer, is seen completely wrapped in bandages and assuming artificial poses with a variety of props–a large mirror, a white ball, some tubes and bottles. In a detailed description of this action in the 1989 book Viennese Actionism, more than half of the events are said to have involved a dead chicken. It is only barely visible in the background of one of the photos–has the curator eliminated those photos thought most likely to offend, thus giving us a sanitized view of this performance?

In any event, while one critic has identified Schwarzkogler’s quest as “the will to be free,” a phrase from his own writings, the dominant feeling of these six photographs is of constraint, entrapment. The artist/performer is denied the freedom of his body in a near-surreal world in which ordinary objects are stripped of their usual functions. It may be that in the actual performance, Schwarzkogler’s ritualistic actions gave them new meaning: it may be, as sometimes happens in art, that things became their opposites, that this apparently hellish prison suggested a kind of freedom. But these six photos alone suggest a total negation: actions’ and objects’ meanings are obscured, just as the artist’s body is covered over.

The photos are strong stuff, but they feel almost toxic, even life denying. Perhaps a fuller documentation would have helped–many more photos of this action survive–but his artistic quest doesn’t seem to have helped Schwarzkogler, who died while still in his 20s, an apparent suicide.

The Bruce Nauman works that relate most directly to Schwarzkogler’s actions are eight videos, shown continuously in 10-minute excerpts from what were originally 60-minute tapes. In each, Nauman performs the same simple action over and over. Bouncing in the Corner and Stamping in the Studio are exactly as described, and the full-length tapes provide more of the same. Yet the effect is completely different from that of Schwarzkogler’s photos. Nauman plays the academic minimalist whose images seem little more than what they show, the Austrian plays the haunted, tormented mystic. While the viewer of Schwarzkogler’s photos may wonder about his psychology, religion (if any), and personal and artistic goals, Nauman’s viewer, forced to watch the same motions over and over, becomes sensitized to tiny variations in Nauman’s body movements, or to the effect of repeated rhythms, or to his own boredom.

Nauman, an artist whose work in many media has taken diverse forms over the years, is still producing–he lives and works in New Mexico. While the drawings and sculptures included are interesting, a small exhibit cannot hope to give an adequate picture of his whole enterprise, something that also seems true of Schwarzkogler.

Blinky Palermo, whose work at a quick first glance may seem little more than minimalist, geometrical exercises, is in fact the artist whose work comes through most strongly. Born Peter Heisterkamp in Leipzig, he was a student of the monumentally influential German artist Joseph Beuys, who suggested that when he wore a certain hat he resembled the American boxing promoter Blinky Palermo; from this remark the artist took his new name. In his lectures Beuys often stressed the social role of the artist, and though Palermo’s work appears to be narrowly formalist, it more thoroughly elides the boundary between art and life than do the more obvious attempts at boundary crossing of Nauman and Schwarzkogler.

An understanding of Palermo’s work requires some knowledge of his career, and of the circumstances under which each work was made, information that this exhibit–which does not even provide translations of the works’ titles–unfortunately does not offer. But even for the viewer who has no idea what he is looking at, Palermo’s work provides much of interest visually, and some clues as to his intent.

Stoffbild rote linie is a large painting of a single red line on a tan background. The line, entering at the upper left, descends vertically to the center, crosses the center to the right, and then descends along the right edge, as simple a geometrical pattern as one’s likely to find. But the tan background is not a solid, even color; it is composed of tiny streaks of darker and lighter tan, while the line, which is nearly flush with the canvas painting’s right edge, is a larger distance away from its left edge.

In the works of American minimalist painters like Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella, simple geometrical patterns seem perfectly matched to the canvases’ shapes. Such works speak with a characteristically American self-sufficiency, as if their absolute formal perfection answered all our needs. Palermo’s asymmetrical line, by contrast, suggests incompleteness, imperfection, unanswered questions. The form presents itself as not enough, as if the “answers” must come from some other sphere.

It helps to know, as can be inferred from the title’s translation (“Red line fabric picture”), that this is one of many pictures Palermo created not on a blank canvas but on fabric. The idea in part was to make pictures that would utilize materials such as preprinted fabric that are a part of daily life, thus putting the picture’s existence into the realm of daily living as well.

Perhaps my favorite Palermo on view here is 4 Prototypen. Four shapes, each a different solid color, are visible in four different frames–a black square, a green triangle, a gray oval, and a blue isosceles triangle. Despite the simplicity of these four forms, their edges are highly irregular; each has seemingly random, jagged serrations. As with the asymmetrical line in Stoffbild rote linie, the effect is oddly powerful. The four forms that the viewer sees lined up like an array of essential “prototypes” seem also pieces of nature, with the unpredictable irregularity of a leaf edge or a coastline at their boundaries. These forms are neither the perfectly geometrical, idealized visions of Kelly or Stella nor real landscapes–they exist at the boundary that mediates between these two extremes.

Here too, a little knowledge of Palermo’s intent helps. On the checklist these pieces are identified as “silkscreen on board,” but Palermo’s plan was to sell each purchaser four templates and the correct amount of each color of paint, and have the buyer of the work apply the paint herself, using the stencil, directly on the wall. (It was the owner of this piece, Deutsche Bank, that opted for the more exhibitable and preservable alternative.) Thus Palermo’s wish was to offer the collector the means to make her own wall drawing, directly on her own wall. If the mainstream tradition in modern art, right down to abstractionists as diverse as Rothko and Kelly, still owes a great debt to the sacred tradition, to the idea of the artist as provider of “special” images to be appreciated and even venerated, Palermo seems to be offering the opposite: art made to be seen at eye level, in the spaces that we live in, placed there by the people who live there.

This seems especially true of the silkscreen Treppenhaus Siedbruck (a treppenhaus is a stairway in a home). A thick tan band rises irregularly, in stages, against a white background–another of Palermo’s oddly irregular designs. But here the work itself appears to provide the explanation–a small photograph at the lower right shows a similar band painted on a stairway wall, following the rise of the stairs. The point of abstract art, Palermo seems to be saying, is not that it should provide perfect forms that represent the pure distilled essences of nature or of the human imagination–its more common role in our century–but rather that its forms can enrich, even as they may echo, the spaces in which we spend our days.

Palermo, like Schwarzkogler, died young, in never-explained circumstances in the Maldives in 1977. His work, only rarely seen in the U.S., will be the subject of a large retrospective in Bonn later this year; while the original wall drawings are gone, there is much that remains. Mappe zur Wandmalerei im Hamburger KV is, according to its title, a portfolio of wall drawings intended for an exhibition space in Hamburg. In the first of three, a black rectangle that at first looks like the night sky floats at the center of a large blank space. On closer inspection, many of the white “stars” in the sky are too oblong, or otherwise irregularly shaped, to be celestial. The second shows straight lines meeting each other at right angles in an asymmetrical design. The third is a solid color, a strange red-brown; a mixture of oddly suggestive hues, it evokes thoughts of blood, of the earth, of deep reddish skin.

Novice visitors to art exhibits are often inclined to chuckle at things like paintings that are but a single solid color. Yet a comparison with the solid-color Ellsworth Kelly paintings in the Art Institute will reveal a world of difference. Kelly’s colors are the colors of the paint chart; strong, assertive, they suggest nothing so much as the idea of pure color. While Kelly takes things seen in daily life as his inspiration, he has refined and purified those forms to shapes so “essential” that they stand as “perfect” larger-than-life art objects, complete in themselves. The three pictures in Palermo’s Mappe are each somehow incomplete; each has an odd disparity, an imperfection, that makes it less a self-contained art object and more a part of the world to which it refers. Palermo’s combining of three images so utterly different from each other as these suggests his mind is able to see commonalities in images as diverse as speckles of white on black and solid red-brown.

His work seems huger than Nauman’s or Schwarzkogler’s, poised as it is on the dividing lines between nature and pure geometry, between artistic imagery and design. Though he has a preference for geometrical forms, he is not above combining one with a photograph taken from the “world.” His art is not attached to specific forms, whether bandaged mummies or forms derived from the body, but tries to include all. Not a bad evocation of “the will to be free.”