24 Farben-für Blinky (24 Colors—for Blinky) was executed in 1977, shortly after the untimely death of Imi Knoebel's close friend, the German painter Blinky Palermo (whose work is also on view at Dia:Beacon). For Knoebel, this moment proved significant. Personal loss was experienced in the form of artistic legacy: a bequest from a peer renowned for his gifts as a colorist. Yet, up to that moment, Knoebel had, in contrast to his friend, strictly confined his palette to white and black monochrome fields or, more often, as seen in Raum 19 (Room 19), 1968 (also on view at Dia:Beacon), depended on the warm natural hues of Masonite. Indeed, Knoebel's fascination with Masonite board had meant that for the first decade of his career, he was more often considered a sculptor than a painter proper. Raum 19 was, like all his works at that time, conceived in materialist terms. The fundamentals of both sculpture and painting comprise its formal language: planar surfaces, supports and stretchers to be stored or stacked, volumetric solids and plastic geometric elements. Tellingly, those features more commonly associated with the pictorial aspects of painting-illusionistic space and the disposition of colored shapes across a flat field-are absent.
When adopting color for the first time in 1977, Knoebel steadfastly held to his materialist aesthetic. Each component in this epic series is a monochrome polygon. Eschewing familiar geometric shapes, such as rectangles, squares, rhomboids, or trapezoids, Knoebel has conceived each complex form as a unique entity that defies easy identification. Similarly, while each hue is indubitably specific, the collective effect exceeds what can be readily remembered; the result is that in this series color is not used conventionally. Less an expressive or referential device, it assumes an abstract character, which in its polyphony comes to signify color tout court. In these and related ways, Knoebel at once extended his ongoing elliptical investigation into the identity of painting and, for the first time, embraced what is traditionally considered its quintessential feature-color-at its most vital and intense.
Exhibited in Heiner Friedrich's gallery in Cologne shortly after it was completed, Knoebel's monumental painting in twenty-one parts entered the collection of Dia Art Foundation shortly thereafter. Recently restored, it is presented for the first time in North America at Dia:Beacon, where the artist himself installed the work, determining the sequence and relation of the parts in response to the site. While this monumental cycle was generated in part in homage to a deceased friend, it nonetheless proved seminal for the artist: it has become the fountainhead in an ongoing investigation that today spans more than thirty years into the multifarious and complex roles color may assume in a contemporary practice.
A selection from a related work that Knoebel made concurrently, an untitled series of some eighty collages on paper, is currently on view in Imi Knoebel: Knife Cuts, an exhibition at the Dan Flavin Art Institute, Dia's museum in Bridgehampton, Long Island.