Per Kirkeby: Never Settle
Modern Painters
Nicolai Hartvig
December 2012

Internationally he is known for his colorful, heavily textured and layered abstract oil paintings of landscapes, large-scale works that earned him his breakthrough in the 1990s—and a belated recognition that Siegfried Gohr, the curator of Kirkeby’s 2012 retrospective at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, has termed a späternte, or “late harvest.” 

Throughout his expectation-defying career, Kirkeby has also been a geologist, poet, sculptor, and filmmaker. He has always been allergic to routine and convention. But with his recent painterly interventions on Masonite board, which echo pieces made but little noticed in the 1960s, the artist is pondering whether he’s finally found his groove—and whether that is a good thing. A cross-section of Kirkeby’s paintings and sculptures are currently on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., through January 6, 2013, the most extensive U.S. survey of his work to date. Nicolai Hartvig visited Kirkeby’s home studio in the leafy Copenhagen neighborhood of Hellerup, where the artist discussed going color-blind and the intangibility of Fluxus, among other things. 

Tell me what you’ve been working on recently. 

Not too long ago I decided to no longer paint my boards black. They have a beautiful golden tone and I wanted to paint directly on that, as if it were paper. It was great. I discovered that I could draw figures and landscapes, distribute the colors in different ways, and use a varnish that I just dripped on there. And I noticed that they resembled my works for the 1960s, which some have been surprised to see in my recent large exhibitions at Tate Modern and the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Suddenly I was no longer bound to do a solid painting. I could put anything in it and tell stories like I did in the old days. It was a terrific freedom. The works were really good. They sold well. And then came the problem. 

There has always been a yearning in my work to not be pigeonholed, to do something a bit unexpected. And I realized that perhaps I was returning to an old pattern. I had a model, a grip. This frightened me, filled me with panic and a certain despair. 

Because you don’t want to settle? 

At my age, you realized that some things have caught you. You can see that as a positive or a negative. On the negative side: Are you in a routine, unconsciously adapting to things that work well? Or on the positive side: Is this merely you, what you have in your kit, the structures that constitute you? If so, then that would be all right. When I worry about following up work that has been successful, as with these latest paintings, I have sculpture. I’ve made a couple in the past two years—they’re pretty far out, and I don’t how they came to be. Right now, sculpture is the place where I cannot be caught. It has become my free space, which I keep for myself. The black Masonite filled that role for many years. But recently, not painting them black and instead making them beautiful, I’ve wondered if I have sold that particular idea. Edvard Munch, as he got older, sat at his home and painted like a wild man. Those works were not very popular and have come to be considered the “wrong” Munch. But that’s how you need to be when you get old. I call it the arrogance of age: You don’t need recognition. You just don’t care. 

You have also returned to some of the signature elements of your older paintings, like the outline of a cave. 

I’ve done that for many years. Georg Baselitz goes back to his serious works and liberally mistreats them. For me, it is a rückbild, or a look back, where I would create paintings without lightening them, using components from my earlier works. Like the hut, for example. In the 1980s, when I decided to begin to paint in oil on canvas in the great European tradition—a decisive turning point for me—there was an openness and an incertitude to the work. Each painting was different, and that is what I wanted. But through the 1990s I developed signatures, somewhat radical and unmistakably mine. Francis Picabia remains my hero. The more you dive into his work, the wilder it becomes. He painted the skewed Cubist paintings that we all know. Then came the kitsch works. And he ended up doing these strange, abstract works that are impossible to grasp. Whenever you think you’ve got him, he’s always moved along. That’s what I aspire to do. 

Picabia was also a link between you and your gallerist, Michael Werner. 

Yes, Michael found me, God knows how. He has indeed started collecting Picabia. At the time, it cost him a yearly lunch with the artist’s widow. Michael has played a colossal role for me, most of all through his incomprehensible brutality. He has the ability to point out the weakest spots. He kept me low in the gallery hierarchy for many years, which I was happy about. 

Michael often came to see my work. He walks like a cowboy. He would look, grunt, and say that it was a complete miss, that he couldn’t use it. Which was actually good, since it forced me to think whether the work truly was a miss—and if so, whether it was something that I still wanted to hold on to. With an outside gaze, I also begin to see the weak points, the places where I’ve skipped ahead and things have gotten too easy. So I begin again. 

Your paintings are labor-intensive. 

I keep working on them. I would love to paint a picture in one session, but I’ve never succeeded. I’ve worked on a painting, on and off, for a year. It’s layer upon layer—but then again, isn’t all painting? I’m quite jealous of artists who can paint in one go and do it really well. Peter Doig is a good example. But perhaps his work process is just structured differently. Maybe he paints layer upon layer before he begins the real painting. He may paint 10 pictures to reach the final one, which I also do; it’s just all on the same canvas. In the end, you reach a certain audacity on the surface. You can liken that to my entire career. I’ve been painting all my life to be able to do what I do now. And it’s high time! 

Your experiences have had a large influence on your art. 

Around the year 2000, I suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Recovering was a slow, upward struggle that added a greater radicalism to my paintings. Then, two years ago, I suffered a stroke, right in my field of vision where color appears. For an entire year, I couldn’t really see colors. I was like Monet, who had to have his daughter read the labels on the paint tins to see what he was using. When she was mad at him, she would give him red when he asked for green. 

When I emerged from this black-and-white world, the first color to return was red. Something powerful happened, giving me a free abstraction. Abstraction doesn’t quite exist for me; there is always a backstory in my work that the world may not need to know, but which is necessary for me. I can’t paint entirely abstract pictures. 

Still, your best-known paintings appear as quasi-abstract landscapes. 

I have a garden and across the road, a park. I never go for walks, but I look out the window and “ask for permission,” as I call it. If I need some green, I find it there. In that sense, I’m a very old-fashioned painter, tied to nature. But I remain modern in that I execute some rather impious structures. 

I will react if I feel that my paintings, though abstract, become too naturalistic. I have another studio in Italy and I worked a lot there this summer. I still depend on my surroundings, so some of my work was very influenced by the Italian landscape, its olive trees and the very cold green color of the leaves. You could identify the specific landscape in those paintings and it drove me crazy. So I had to destroy them. But even destructions can still help underline what is good about a picture. 

I imagine that your interest in the intricacies of landscapes and the idea of structure comes from your training as a geologist. 

A structureless painting is, to me, a painting that does not matter. Structure mirrors your degree of responsibility toward the work. You can’t just let it float around in pretty colors. It needs a kind of core. But this is an inner structure. It does correspond to being a geologist—the metaphor may be trite but it works. Like when you see these breathtaking mountains in strange colors in eastern Greenland. As a geologist, you want to know what exactly they’re doing. 

You’ve avoided being part of most major art movements. 

Even when I left Denmark for Germany, where I was a professor for two decades, my background remained Danish and it was always Denmark to which I’d return. Baselitz told me he had always been envious of me because I had Denmark: I could travel out into a larger world where I could follow my ambitions, and at the same time I keep a refuge from this enormous space that could swallow you. I became part of this German wave on new painting and sculpture, even though I didn’t fit in. Baselitz and the other young German artists, their paintings were demonstrative figuration, while my work was more lyrical and Cubist, based on still life. None of the curators of the exhibitions at the time knew what to do with it. I could see that they almost wished I’d just withdraw. 

But it’s an outsider position with which I’ve been really comfortable. I was able to extend myself within my own thing, which wasn’t very successful internationally. My work was not punchy enough. I succeeded in constantly evading branding. 

Were you still inspired by different artists and art movements? 

Definitely. I’ve surveyed it all, often in the sense of saying, “Well, now he has done that, so I don’t have to. I’m exempt from going into this particular cul-de-sac.” I’ve always seen other artists and movements as a positive opportunity for me; I’ve never felt them to be a threat. Then again, I’ve also wandered, in many respects. I spend some years with Fluxus, for instance. 

That’s surprising. 

In France, where they are very Fluxus fixated, I’ve had to cut short interviews because journalists took me to be a traitor to Fluxus, to its ideals. But early in my youth, I did share these: that art should not be commercial, should not even come close to being salable. That everything should be pared down. 

My history with Fluxus is actually quite funny. I went to New York in 1966 as a relatively young man, wanted to meet all the artists. Denmark was extremely small and stuffy. In high school I had discovered something called Jackson Pollock, and I was furious that no one had told me about this before. 

How was New York? 

It went pretty well. It was winter and very cold. I had no money. I lived somewhere pretty squalid and didn’t speak English—I tried to learn by watching television. I was calling around, saying, “Hello I’m a Danish artist. I would like to meet you.” It was embarrassing. I called Bob Morris. But I also got to meet George Maciunas, the father of Fluxus. I wanted to know what the Fluxus was, so I asked him, “If I put salt in a tea bag and then into hot water, then the salt will dissolve, and when you pull the bag up, there is nothing in it. Is that Fluxus?” “Let’s make that one right away,” Maciunas replied. And it became a Fluxus object. I told him that I was a painter and that I would keep painting. “Well,” he said, “that doesn’t matter, as long as you do it the right way.” Getting to know him, I understood that the right way was with a certain sense of justice. 

For two decades you taught at the Städelschule in Frankfurt and the art academy in Karlsruhe. 

It’s difficult when you’re teaching. I always painted while at the academies, practiced what I preached. You had your own studio and the door was open so that students could see what they wanted to. Aside from the abstract, I’ve always tried to have the students learn something real. I tried to push the students slowly toward the edge, questioning their work with little remarks to make them uncertain, only to then give them the final push and, while they hurtled downward, yell, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” There is nothing more terrible than to become an artist, with all the pretensions, and then to not function. You have to be ready to do it, even if you don’t succeed in catching some artistic wave. 

At the Städelschule we also had a professional kitchen, where each student would learn to cook. Once a year we would hold a wirtshaus where they would serve their dishes before an audience. The idea was that you could not cheat. You can approach an artist and say that his work looks crazy. And the artist could easily say that it’s supposed to look like that. Anything can be fixed this way. But if you burn food, there’s no way around that. It was a kind of morality. 

Literature seems to be an important inspiration for you. The room we’re sitting in is filled with books. 

It’s a collection in constant flux. Somewhere up top, I keep all the books from my student years. It’s been a great boon because I often peruse the books and borrow elements. Whenever I stall, I leaf through books, among them some fantastic ones with Renaissance paintings. The last many years, Byzantine art has been a major source of inspiration. Its structures are really carved up, with wild colors, but still strict. I was always fascinated by how dangerous it was to be a painter in iconoclastic Byzantium and the ensuing exodus of artists into Western Europe. 

You’ve been a prolific writer as well. 

I’m a painter, writing—but the writings need to be taken seriously. There are some lyrical texts and some essays but decidedly no poems. It’s poetic argumentation, which some may see as less serious, but it is close to my method. It shows a different aspect of me, that of a painter who thinks about things.