It is, I think, fair to say that Per Kirkeby does not like talking about his work. In fact he opens our interview with those very words: “I don’t like talking about my work.” Which is a shame, really, because that work isn’t just deeply compelling but intensely articulate, and because Kirkeby talks about other people’s work – that of Delacroix, Picasso, his dear, dead friend, Poul Gernes – cleverly and with compassion. But that’s artists for you.
If you don’t know Kirkeby – pronounced KYER-ke-boo – then you soon will. Seventy now, and the unchallenged grand old man of Danish art, his paintings and smaller sculptures go on show at Tate Modern this month. An air of myth clings to these, as to him. Trained as an arctic geologist, Kirkeby still goes on field trips to Greenland. On the parquet floor of his drawing room in a grand suburb of Copenhagen – a working-class boy, he grew up on a housing estate nearby – is a polar-bear skin, its teeth bared in taxidermic rage. “I had an incident with one of these once,” says Kirkeby, a small, neat, rather beautiful man who draws obsessively as he speaks. “You can’t believe how fast they move, like a cat. I said to my assistant, ‘Maybe you should deal with this’, but he had just a pistol. The only way you can kill a polar bear with a pistol is by shooting it in the eye, so he did.” Pause. “The left eye.” Joseph Beuys? Ha!
Actually, Kirkeby knew Beuys and, it is fair to say, doesn’t much like talking about him either. There is a history here. During the early 1960s, a degree in geology and a field trip to Narssak under his belt, the young art student joined Copenhagen’s Eks-Skolen – a loose band of the fervently avant-garde, grouped around Poul Gernes. In 1966, Beuys came to address them; Kirkeby did a couple of performances with him. It was the man he called Uncle Poul who really fell under Beuys’s spell, though, and not in a good way. The German, Kirkeby says, was “fatal” to Gernes, infecting him with a “mixture of Steiner-esque global philosophy and radical politics… Poul became very ayatollah then,” he recalls. “He developed this belief in A-artists and B-artists that I found nasty. I had, and have, a strong belief that just one work of art, just one form, carries value.” The two men fell out, Poul accusing Per of class treachery.
Which makes a couple of things about the room we’re sitting in surprising. One is a work propped against the wall of the studio next door, a modern extension to Kirkeby’s neoclassical villa. The work is a square of MDF, matte black with chalky-looking graffiti that includes the half-erased words ‘chaos reigns’. Whish is to say that it is possible to mistake it for a work by Beuys, a suggestion Kirkeby receives with a wince. “The blackboard didn’t belong to Beuys,” he says. “Adepts have spent the past 40 years saving it from him. I use these works to doodle around, to teach – but to teach myself, not others. There’s nothing didactic about what I do.”
The night before, I saw another blackboard like this, at a gallery where Kirkeby is arranging a show of Gernes’s work. That blackboard had a yellow hut chalked on it, and what looked like a green snake. These forms have a pedigree in Kirkeby’s art, as has the blackboard.
Both Kirkeby and Gernes worked on squares of Masonite – the MDF of its day – in the mid-1960s, although in different ways. Taking up the Beuysian cross, Gernes brought colour to the masses by painting Masonite squares with Pantone stripes and posting them off around Denmark. By contrast, Kirkeby used his squares to meditate on the art unfolding around him. The Tate show will include some of his earliest Masonite pieces, stuck with Pop-ish bits of wallpaper and decal cartoons. Not long after, the squares turned black, graphic and MDF, which is how they have stayed for 40 years now.
As to their derivation from Beuys, you might see Kirkeby as omnivorous rather than cannibalistic. He is fond of the word ‘shit’, and that, perhaps, is apt. In the past he has written of the impossibility of seeing art other than through ‘historical spectacles’, the histories in question being various and intertwined: his own, culture’s, the history of art. Every Kirkeby is the digested sum of all previous Kirkebys and, with luck, something more. Knowing of the artist’s geologist alter ego, critics have seen his canvases as geological, their encrusted surfaces and half-erased forms eroded strata. (“People like literal answers”, Kirkeby grimaces at this.) Shit – great, beautiful, visceral, Freudian shit – is probably a better analogy.
Take the large canvas, 3 x 4.5 metres, hanging on the wall of Kirkeby’s Copenhagen studio. (He also paints on the island of Læsø and in what a friend calls “a small castle” in Italy.) This is both new and not, having taken a year of the artist’s time so far. The canvas is also old in the things it does: we’ve seen its horses in earlier takes on Hans Baldung Grien’s woodcut Stallion and Kicking Mare with Wild Horses (1534). Grien seems an odd place for Kirkeby to start from, but then he has always relished the shock of the old: “In the 1960s in London, the Tate was my museum”, he beams. “Rossetti and Burne-Jones were the ultimate forbidden art, so I studied them closely.” Encoded in the canvas is a fallen tumbler, Kirkeby code for the still lifes he likes to slip into his landscapes. Which is to say that this canvas, as yet unnamed, seems a deeply literary work; a suggestion that wipes the Pre-Raphaelite smile off Kirkeby’s face.
“I’m an intuitive artist, not an intellectual”, he says, drawing furiously. “I’m not a sculptor, not a writer: I’m a painter. ‘Collapse’ is a key word for me – my paintings have to collapse. What do they say? ‘You have to kill your darlings’, to get rid of the things you love. It’s like with the first Grien – I thought, ‘I’m going to do something I’d never do – paint a horse!’ I mean, a horse: come on. And yet it comes out as a Kirkeby. I’d really like to do a monochrome red painting, but I don’t have permission for that. I’d like to paint figures, a naked woman. What is it that prevents me? I don’t know. I would like it, but the painting wouldn’t like it.” He stops to weigh his sketch, one of the tree stumps that recur in his work. “This I can control, more or less”, he says. “What I can’t control” – he jabs a thumb over his shoulder, to the crisp beds of clipped box outside – “is that that gets greener and greener, and I hate green. That I can’t control. And it’s shit.”
Now, let’s consider the word. ‘Shit’, in Kirkeby’s book, seems to be a broad synonym for disorder, that chaotic half of any artist’s working life. Another odd thing about his library is that there is a late Poul Gernes hanging in it, behind the chair where Kirkeby draws. “That’s full of shit, too”, he says, pointing over his shoulder. “Emotional shit. So were Poul’s stripes. You know, Barnett Newman used to stand in front of his stripes and say, ‘I want emotional excess’. The question is how.”
And that, maybe, is what make Kirkeby extraordinary. It is common to lump his canvases under the generic (and Germanic) heading of New Painting, alongside those of his contemporaries Baselitz and Polke. All three men are represented by the German gallerist Michael Werner, and it is, perhaps, in Werner’s interest that this should be so. A little internal competition never hurt. But it is also not quite the whole truth. Unlike the other two men – perhaps more Danishly – Kirkeby seems on an endless quest for modesty: the hut from which palaces derive, a way of reconciling the obduracy of green, ruptured friendships, childhood and old age. If anything, his nearest artistic relation is another Werner painter, the younger Peter Doig. “The problem is, you’re never free”, Kirkeby says, his unstoppable pencil sketching tree rings, tree bark, root. “I wake up in the morning and I think, ‘I’ve got the solution’. All the time I’m getting dressed, I’m thinking about what it is, how it’s going to work. Then I get to the studio and there is no solution.”