Surface, color, and other nonrepresentational formalities are generally what we use to approach abstract painting. In the case of Kirkeby, however, it’s useful to look beyond the surface of the works; here, the Copenhagen based artist can rise and breathe. While technically abstract, his work is imbued with human presence.
The 77-year-old Kirkeby, who has had limited exposure in the United States, has had a varied career ranging from an interest in geology to cinematic work with director Lars von Trier. Co-curated by Olivier Berggruen and Kadee Robbins, “Echo of the Light” offers a selection of monotypes and large-scale paintings dating from the late 1980s through 2014. At first glance, Kirkeby’s sense of abstraction is almost uninspired, but the physicality of his details grounds the viewer. His marks are so specific that it’s hard not to associate the body with the end result. In Wut (rage), 2006, dark shapes sit next to and on top of dusty gray and muted red; the artist reenters the surface drawing by adding line and removing paint via scratching. The paintings can take months to complete, the artist beginning with thin coats of oil or tempera before the topmost layer is applied in a thick impasto. Unconventional forms start to emerge as recognizable shapes, as if filtered through a dream. Geology and the natural world provide points of reference—emerging in these paintings as nondescript rock formations, trees, waterfalls, and even what could be a human silhouette. Kirkeby works for the most part in muted colors, but the occasional bright red or kelly green vibrate from the surface.
In an excerpt from Notes, part of the “Echo of Light” catalogue text, Kirkeby, also a poet and essayist, writes, “To think about, to lose oneself in this/is like long biographically instructive poems/with glimpses of abandoned wind and weather and other visions.” His abstract use of language echoes the line between abstraction and representation that he toes in his work—the color of abandoned wind being something we might find in his paintings.