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Per Kirkeby: Elusive Geometry
Art in America
David Ebony
February 2013

THE DIFFUSED ARCTIC LIGHT, long shadows and misty terrain characteristic of Nordic lands often pervades the region’s art and literature, traditionally steeped in melancholy introspection and angst. Copenhagen is, after all, the birthplace of existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and painter Christen Købke (1810-1848), known for his exceptionally cool brand of Romanticism. Per Kirkeby, born in Copenhagen in 1938, perhaps best conveys the Nordic temperament in metaphorical terms, in his essay “Shadows”: 

In the northern regions there are many shadows. Far more shadows than people. In the south the shadows are sharper and more distinct. More approachable. In the north they dance the sad waltzes with a surge of delight. The southern shadows are firmer, more loyal; they are what they are. The Nordic shadows tear themselves away. Fragments becoming independent. 

Kirkeby is something of a celebrity in his homeland, where many believe his work embodies the spirit of the nation. As an elder statesman of the Danish avant-garde, he represents a link between forms of postwar modernism and the practices of younger artists in Denmark today, such as Olafur Eliasson, Michael Elmgreen (who usually works with Norwegian artist Ingar Dragset), the collective Superflex and the Copenhagen-based, Tel Aviv-born painter Tal R. 

Kirkeby’s output encompasses painting, drawing, sculpture, film, several architectural works, murals (including one in the interior of Copenhagen’s Geological Museum, completed in 2004), ballet sets and an impressive array of published writings-essays on art and artists as well as his own poetry and novels. Kirkeby retrospectives have appeared at London’s Tate Modern, in 2009, and at the Center for Fine Arts, Brussels, early last year. But in the U.S., his exposure has been limited mostly to periodic New York and Los Angeles gallery shows. The most widely seen works in this country might be the title sequences—abstract animations of lines and brushstrokes, and live footage of panoramic landscapes—he created for several films by Danish director Lars von Trier, including Breaking the Waves (1996),Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Antichrist (2009). 

Helping to rectify this oversight, Kirkeby’s first U.S. museum survey recently debuted at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and travels next month to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME. In addition, Writings on Art, a volume of Kirkeby’s collected essays translated for the first time into English, was published to coincide with the show. Covering a wide range of topics, from extinct animals to Andy Warhol, the book offers rewarding insight into Kirkeby’s engaging and rather esoteric thought processes, which conflate art history, natural science, philosophy, literature and folklore into a wholly subjective, autobiographical stew. 

Organized by Phillips Collection director Dorothy Kosinski and the museum's curator-at-large, Klaus Ottmann, “Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture” features 26 paintings—mostly large-scale canvases—and 11 medium-size bronze sculptures, plus a program of Kirkeby’s documentary films continuously showing on a small monitor in a side gallery. Dominating the exhibition are the luminous quasi-abstract paintings for which Kirkeby is best known. These works could be positioned among those of contemporary painters such as Frank Auerbach or Georg Baselitz, as well as other artists who are inspired by landscape and other empirical motifs, but who are not bound by conventions of perspective or illustrative details. Kirkeby uses a wide range of expressive color and mark-making to create abstracted evocations of situations and places. His canvases are consistently invigorated by distinctive brushwork, often in irregular patterns and patchworks of dense, textural layering. Examples such as New Shadows V (1996) and Prisoner of the Holy Agony I (2009) demonstrate the subtle color relationships and the references to nature that are characteristic of his work. The former, a 63-inch-square oil on canvas, features a central area of brilliant yellow surrounded by dense patches of vermilion, orange and scarlet. Irregular networks of delicate black or crimson lines scattered throughout the composition lend a sense of order if not structure to the image, which evokes the sensation of sunlight streaming through the crevices of a red-rock canyon. 

Prisoner of the Holy Agony I contains short, staccato brushstrokes of emerald green, yellow, blue and brown tempera, which traverse the upper portions of the canvas in irregular bands. The horizontal divisions bear an overt reference to landscape, reading as rows of thick vegetation bordering what looks like a dark, reflective pool of water in the lower portion of the canvas. Washes of deep green and gray on the left offset bright passages of warm and cool greens punctuated by touches of orange, like flashing koi just below the surface, on the right. The overall effect recalls one of Monet’s late “Water Lilies,” although Kirkeby's strokes are broader, and the viewer is pulled much closer into the scene. The masterful chromatic juxtapositions create a sense that both of these works glow from within.

KIRKEBY STUDIED AT the University of Copenhagen, specializing in quaternary Arctic geology. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, he made several expeditions to the glacial northern frontier of Greenland. On one of these trips, in addition to filming the project, he brought along a watercolor sketchbook in which he attempted to capture the sensory as well as the scientific aspects of the experience. Eventually, he began to shift his focus to art. Supplementing his geology studies, he enrolled in Copenhagen’s Experimental Art School (Ex-School) in 1962, where he immersed himself in painting, film and early forms of performance art. 

While generally concise and well-conceived, the survey lacks a clear overview of Kirkeby’s early efforts, with only three examples from the 1960s. One could never guess from the show that Kirkeby was inspired to be an artist by the Fluxus movement. Although he was never a full-fledged member of the group, he participated in a number of Joseph Beuys performances in Europe, beginning in 1963. Traveling to New York with his wife in 1966, he met Fluxus guru George Maciunas, and collaborated on performances and Happenings with Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman. Kirkeby’s early paintings are mainly Pop art-inflected works (not in the survey), filled with photo-based imagery, collage and Pop culture references; they correspond especially closely to contemporaneous works by British Pop artists such as Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake. 

A selection of these works could have added extra depth to the show, although the three 1960s paintings on view are notable as they relate to other important influences on the young artist. Dark Cave (The Dream About Uxmal and the Unknown Grottos of Yucatan), 1967, shows a sun-drenched, abstracted landscape of fields and mountains, as glimpsed from the dark recesses of a cave, whose deep browns and ocher fill most of the composition. The painting’s title, with its reference to the Yucatan in Mexico, presages Kirkeby’s lifelong admiration of, if not obsession with, ancient Maya art and architecture after his extended travels through Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala in the early 1970s. Regicide at Finderup Barn (1967), presenting a mash-up of abstract and figurative elements, including a snow-covered barn and a shadowy figure at right, demonstrates the pervasive influence of Sigmar Polke on artists of Kirkeby’s generation. Energy (1969) features two intentionally crude renderings of red flowers in the center, set against a blue-green background, the whole framed by a graffiti-like scrawl of dark blue lines. The work suggests a correspondence to Tachisme and the CoBrA movement, the latter a loose association of quasi-figurative painters from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, working in a colorful, exuberant style. In particular, Energy recalls works by Danish CoBrA pioneer Asger Jorn and the centralized compositions and quirky figuration of Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky, a CoBrA cofounder. 

In his writing about painting, Kirkeby stresses the need to avoid having a definitive style, claiming that “Style is a dangerous concept.” In the catalogue for the exhibition, both Ottmann's essay and an interview with the artist by Kosinski place much emphasis on Kirkeby’s goal to create nonemotional, nonsensational work. Yet, as evidenced by the survey, Kirkeby, from the mid-1970s on, developed a distinctive painting style and produced a large number of works that are unapologetically gorgeous, unequivocally emotion-wrought and clearly meant to elicit a broad range of visceral responses from viewers. 

Kirkeby’s paintings are often imbued with art historical references, some more overt than others. Fram (1982), whose Danish title can be translated as “Forward,” is a tense, elegiac composition, approximately 4 by 6 ½ feet, in a palette of grays and pale green. It is an outstanding example of Kirkeby’s method of constructing a picture. He has indicated in interviews that he combines still-life and landscape motifs in this work, which was equally inspired by Caspar David Friedrich's iconic painting of an Arctic shipwreck, The Sea of Ice(1823-24), and still lifes by 17th-century Dutch painter Willem Claeszoon Hecla. Agitated brushstrokes of snowy white on the left counterpoint to arcing slashes of yellow on the upper right. The layered marks and textural density recall Philip Guston’s abstract works. Without modeled forms, the painting evokes, through color and mood, a vast frozen tundra with a pool of ice stretching across the canvas. Kirkeby here conjures the feeling of solitude and desolation that one might have standing in the middle of an ice-covered plain. 

The forms of horses running through a field dominate a recent series of untitled canvases. One example in the show from 2009 (around 10 by 15 feet), depicts three horses gamboling on the right of a dark meadow. Compositionally, the piece is based on a 16th-century etching by German artist Hans Baldung Grien, but the wild colors of the horses—green, yellow and red—as well as the exuberant brushwork, more closely echo Franz Marc's equine canvases of 1911. A more subtle and imaginative treatment of the motif appears in another untitled work from the same year. Here, a standing horse, suggested by sporadic strokes of Prussian blue against white and green, seems to merge with the surrounding forest. 

TO MY MIND, the closest Kirkeby comes to making nonemotional, nonsensory work is in his series of “Blackboards,” which he has returned to periodically since the 1980s. These completely abstract works employ colored chalk on 4-footsquare boards covered in blackboard paint. They are often ephemeral experiments that the artist eventually erases. With thin, slashing lines, the spare, sometimes minimalist works appear to be nothing more or less than exercises in spontaneous gesture. Compared with the paintings, the “Blackboards” on view were, for me, the survey’s visual weak spots. In interviews, Kirkeby assigns these pieces a key place in his oeuvre, describing them as a kind of continuously evolving alphabet'that resonates in many of his other works. 

By contrast, Kirkeby’s bronze sculptures are compelling on their own and serve to enhance the architecture and other three-dimensional forms depicted in many of the paintings—Retrospect I (1986), with its green cabin prominent in the lower right, is a strong example. The sculptures fall into one of two categories: architecture or the figure. Several small maquettes—Gate (1981), No. 18 (1987) and No. 14 (1989)—represent the large-scale pseudo-ruins, brick pavilions and other architectonic structures that Kirkeby has built at various European sites over the past four decades. The 6-inch-high No. 18 represents a four-sided edifice with an arched doorway on each side. Bricks are the artist's favored material for the full-size structures-fittingly, since the layering echoes the techniques in his paintings. His earliest brick work, The House (1973), constructed in Ikast, in central Denmark, brings to mind a Norse building that might be used for some ritualistic purpose. 

Another bronze in the show, Inventory XX (2002), also has an architectural aspect. A cubelike object about 30 inches high, it looks like a shipping crate covered in cloth. At the top, a small tree stump is faintly suggested by the folds. Arm and Leg and Large Head (both 1984), with their tortured surfaces and extreme distortions of forms, recall de Kooning’s bronzes. Laeso Head I (1983) and Large Head (1984) correspond to contemporaneous bronzes by the Swiss sculptor Hans Josephsohn, as well as the anguished bronze “heads” French artist Jean Fautrier made in the 1940s to represent victims of the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. 

THERE IS A TENDENCY for Kirkeby’s work to inspire viewers to meditate on dissolution. What would be left in the world after a natural upheaval? A marine terrace? A crag? Kirkeby considers such questions in his large painting Earthquake (1983). Bravura brushstrokes of brown, white and yellow crash toward the center of the canvas. The work conveys a moment just after the event, as the dust settles and rays of light manage to penetrate the sullen morass. 

Whether one sees Kirkeby’s work as exemplifying the Nordic temperament, with myriad elusive shadows claiming lives of their own, or as representing geologic time, his best efforts achieve a delicate balance of form and content that releases an unexpected amount of energy and light.