Per Kirkeby has moved through many different areas of work during his long career, consistently resisting all labeling imposed from the outside. Kirkeby is and has always been a notorious loner, a solitary Nordic figure far from the great movements and short-lived trends. Born in 1938, the universal artist is a geologist, writer, filmmaker, architect, and sculptor, yet he sees himself primarily as a painter. Kirkeby already began studying painting and graphic arts in Copenhagen in 1962, during his studies in geology. After several expeditions to Greenland and a dissertation on Arctic geology, he went public with his artistic work in his first solo shows of the mid-sixties. Fascinated by their utopian visions, Kirkeby took part in the Fluxus movement and played in performances by Joseph Beuys and Charlotte Moorman. And like many European artists, he experienced the American Pop Art movement as a revelation. Around this time, the artist discovered masonite panels 122 x 122 cm in size as a painting ground. He uses them as his format for experimentation to this day. Cowboys, film stars, comics, and the fashion beauties of the advertising agencies made their appearance as stencils and quotes throughout these early mixed-media answers to Warhol and Lichtenstein. The masonite panels were also a flight from the “terror” of the Fluxus artists who were against painting—as Kirkeby later described the zeitgeist of the time in an essay on his former comrade in arms Georg Baselitz. The masonite paintings of the late ’60s and early ’70s look like an extract of his continuous dialogue with painting. The figurative still dominates, but alongside the pop-cultural motifs, nature and the expressive, abstract gesture become fundamental constants and already start emerging into the foreground of his work, becoming condensed in an almost emblematic way in three main motifs: tree, forest, and cabin.
Kirkeby’s path led him throughout the 1970s away from Pop quotes and collage techniques to the Peinture pure of oil painting. The representational aspect gradually disappears, the brushstrokes become looser, the formats larger, and art history enters into his painting. Kirkeby positioned himself very consciously in the larger European painting tradition. In a key work from this phase, Fram (1983), the two antipodes nature and culture take on the form of image quotes rendered starkly abstract. The work is a cross between The Sea of Ice of Caspar David Friedrich, whom Kirkeby admired, and a magnificent Netherlandish still life from the 17th century; he lets both nearly disappear in a painting process suspended somewhere between construction and destruction.
>From this point on, the balance between figurative and abstract determines Kirkeby’s work. For a short time, it shifts in favor of a gestural, expressive abstraction out of which figurative elements occasionally emerge like phantoms. In 1981, Kirkeby took part in the legendary group exhibition A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy in London. He was now regarded as a proponent of the New Painting and suddenly found himself grouped together with the Neo-Expressionists, such as Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck, and Anselm Kiefer, a fact he felt uncomfortable with. One year later, Kirkeby experienced the celebration of expressive figuration in the Zeitgeist exhibition at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau as a personal crisis: “I was alone and unable to share in the euphoria all around me. They were only demanding one tiny representational element from me. I did what I could, but it didn’t want to happen. I was almost excluded, because I was too abstract. Ever since then, I have felt like an outsider.” Kirkeby went his own way, far from the figurative expressivity of the New Wilds, but without the transcendental aim of a Mark Rothko and without the existential pathos that had dominated European Informel in the 1950s.
It would be a misunderstanding to confuse Kirkeby’s expressive gesture with impulsiveness or emotionality. The Louisiana exhibition of 2008/09 provided an important corrective in perception in this respect. The painter Carsten Fock, Kirkeby’s master student at the Frankfurt Städelschule, also emphasizes the reflective aspect in his teacher’s work, which is often overlooked: “With Kirkeby, painting always takes place from a certain analytical distance, despite its apparent immediacy and affect. I loved this when I started to study with him in 1997. The gesture is a controlled gesture; there is a very strong process of reflection in the working process itself. This type of thinking has had a strong influence on my work to this day.”
Kirkeby’s painting is the result of a dialogue that the artist entertains with nature, without, however, representing it naturalistically. Per Kirkeby is far more ambitious than that. In his work, nature is not a subject in a classic sense, even if he plays with landscape elements as though with “props and stage sets” (Kirkeby), and even when purely abstract large canvases such as Nikopeja I & II, Flugten til Aegypten, and Portugalien often suggest landscapes. This association stems from a deeper-lying kinship. Kirkeby takes nature as his role model. He derives his aesthetic method from a deep understanding of the powers at work in it. The all-over in his paintings exists without a center, but is clearly structured—”a sedimentation of very thin layers,” as he says. “It’s gradually become clear to me that all my paintings are about holes or caves. Holes in materiality, like living in a cave and looking out. Or looking into a cave. This strange, dizzying view through matter.”
Kirkeby has called the color spaces of his painting “caves of light.” To him, color is the essential means for transferring allusions to nature into pure painting. “Our painting,” he writes, “is a kind of sign of a dream of nature that stands still, where experiences can be stored away. The colors of nature always flow, while we try to make our colors stable.” Through his application of color in large-scale paintings such as Leiser Wellenschlag, grün (2005), in which delicate shades of green are richly orchestrated in a dense composition, Kirkeby achieves a dissolution of space and a kind of pull that is comparable to Monet’s late Water Lilies. His virtuosity is all the more remarkable when one knows what a challenge the color green represents to the painter. “It’s so unpopular because it reminds us of landscape,” says Carsten Fock. “It’s unbelievable how Kirkeby manages it that green isn’t connected to certain associations or meanings, but is perceived as pure color in painting.”
The intensive exploration of the painter and explorer Kirkeby with the light and color of the North have continuously expanded his palette over the course of the years, while he has remained true to the principle of the pure layering of color. In comparison to the often cool and murky metallic tonalities of his earlier works, the spectrum has brightened noticeably. In Flugten til Aegypten, Kirkeby achieves a brilliance that recalls August Macke’s series on his journey to Tunisia, while in Portugalien, which was painted on the island of Laesø, he lends the Danish summer an almost southern glow.
Many of the visual signs that Kirkeby covers his large colorful canvases with are reminiscent of rock formations, crystals, branches, grass, or wood grain. Kirkeby develops the vocabulary of his paintings from drawing—a kind of thinking, and not an end in itself, but rather a means to “find out something” (Kirkeby). In his leap across disciplines, the anorganic and the organic approach one another in Kirkeby’s work. Drawings and prints contain architectonic elements as well as natural motifs, such as his untitled lithography from the 2002 series Bauen Wohnen Denken (Build, Live, Think) from the Deutsche Bank Collection.
His deeply serious exploration into nature, however, has nothing to do with its kitschy version seen in the current ecological awareness. Kirkeby adopts an instinctively protective stance against concepts such as “landscape” and “romantic.” The fact that people are increasingly talking about the Danish artist again today has, perhaps, not only to do with the rediscovery of gestural abstraction of the post-war era, which is currently dominating exhibition calendars. If it’s more than a trend born out of the cycles of the art market, it also, quite possibly, reflects an overkill of conceptual works felt to be lifeless, or the tendency for art and design to merge. On the other hand, Kirkeby’s process-oriented work satisfies a certain longing: the authentic and immediate connection between the artist and the work, in which doing is both thought and feeling.