Niels Borch Jensen, Berlin
As well as printmaking, Danish artist Per Kirkeby’s (b. 1938) oeuvre includes painting, sculpture, architecture, writing (poetry, essays, and travel books), and performance. Kirkeby studied arctic geology in Copenhagen; he gained a Masters degree in 1964, by which time he was already a member of Eks-Skolen, an experimental art school consisting of committed avant-gardists grouped around the artist Poul Gernes. Watercolors and drawings—made on geology field trips—attested to an interest in visualizing nature partly through a geological lens that continues today in the monotypes and etchings on view in this exhibition. A retrospective of Kirkeby’s work was held at the Louisiana Museum of Art, Denmark, and Tate Modern, London in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
Two years after a stroke resulting from a fall down stairs at home in 2013 Kirkeby declared an end to his career as a painter—though not as an artist working with printmaking. The injury had left him unable to see colors or orient himself in the large canvases that had been typical throughout his career, or to recognize faces, even his wife’s. He fought against the “defects to his vision,” as he put it, and resumed work “as the artist he is now.”
In this exhibition are Kirkeby’s most recent etchings and monotypes, continuing a collaboration with Niels Borch Jensen Editions that began in 1979. It was at this print workshop that Kirkeby experimented, during the 1980s, with large-format and color printing as well as monotypes. Kirkeby’s graphic production was equal, rather than secondary, to his painting—the two mediums in a productive dialogue. Monotypes are, by definition, unique works, but this doesn’t deter Kirkeby referring to them as “serial thinking.” Each monotype informs the next; as in other printing processes, he says that “I don’t see what I have created before the printing process is completed. To discover one’s own work is a remarkable experience.” On seeing these recent etchings and monotypes it is evident that the visual and conceptual back-and-forth between making, and seeing later printed results, is as productive, vital, and inventive, as it has ever been, the enquiry as keen.
Installations at the Niels Borch Jensen Gallery are usually exceptional, as this one proves to be. The space retains its original concrete walls and exposed concrete ribbed ceiling, with visible electrical channeling and strip lighting. The main partition wall contrasted, floating a couple of centimeters from a polished concrete floor, painted a cool mid-gray and positioned parallel to the street-facing second floor windows that run from one end of the gallery to the other. This wall, seen upon entering the gallery, displays six vertically paired etchings, flanking either side of two larger monotypes. The range of tone throughout the prints is remarkable for its evocation of light and of contractions and expansions of space—it suggests light levels intensifying or fading. The accretions of marks are layered or contiguous, in some cases like looking through liquid, in others like looking across a surface of different textures. Color is used sparingly and limited to yellows, greens, and browns. On the reverse of this main wall—painted in the same mid-gray—is an area used for flat files, above which are five framed etchings, each leaning on an angled section with a lower lip that supports the frame. The effect is like being able to handle the works oneself. The gray walls also enable a clearer understanding of the tones and contrasts in the prints themselves.
The exhibition is as compelling as one would expect from Kirkeby: it is extraordinary in its range and reflects the artist’s trajectory and concerns. Printing has not in any way become secondary to painting; graphic work was central to the artist, and it remains so here.