Saturday, August 22, 2009


Tate Modern's decision to devote a big exhibition to Per Kirkeby has been questioned but I was pleased to see a good spread of his yesterday - there are several reasons why he's an interesting artist for this blog:
  • Kirkeby's paintings may be abstract and neoexpressionist but they refer to natural forms and real landscapes 
  • Like other recent artists (Robert Smithson most obviously), he is fascinated by geology, but in Kirkeby's case this is based on his early training as a geologist
  • He continues to seek inspiration in nature, particular Greenland - the Tate show includes watercolour sketches made there
  • He engages with art history and has produced numerous books and short critical studies on painters like Munch and Gauguin - Tate Modern has a beautiful display of these
  • His brick sculptures have been placed in landscapes across Europe - there are no photographs of these in the exhibition, but see below for some examples 
Adrian Searle's review of the exhibition talks about the way landscape influences Kirkeby's painting: 'the colours are blackened army greens, earthy browns and ochres, greys from skies that don't move for days; there are snatches of white, dead blues, reds. The landscape is both there and not there. When the painter turns to the canvas, the weather outside disappears; but like history it insists on being felt anyway, like rain at the window or wind in the chimney. In the Danish painter's work there are rocks and sodden patches, waterfalls, huts, wood-grain, all sorts of geological fissures, strata and lumps.'

And here's Robert Storr discussing this element of Kirkeby's art: 'If northern light is to be taken as the hallmark of Scandinavian art, then Kirkeby is among the handful of Scandinavian artists who, although he himself rarely paints landscape as such, have captured that light in all hours of the day (such as those sudden changes in weather that can turn a radiant sky into a dense wall of clouds and back again). Presently, there seems to be little enthusiasm among people with advanced taste or ideas for such naturalism, even when translated into abstract terms as Kirkeby does. This, and the fact that he didn’t use painting to undertake a re-examination of history’s horrors as Anselm Kiefer, Jörg Immendorff, Richter and his German contemporaries did – being Danish spared him the daylight nightmares they suffered – leaves him odd man out of the group of painters that claimed the stage at the beginning the 1980s. Perhaps a “greening” of art will change things and put him back in the mix thematically. In any event, he holds his own simply as a painter, and ultimately it is the freshness of his work in that medium upon which his reputation will primarily – and securely – rest.'

Kirkeby's practice is obviously contemporary in many respects but it sometimes reminded me of the abstract, expressionistic landscape art painted in America and St Ives in the fifties: works inspired by nature and the spirit of place, sometimes titled with a location (e.g. Killeberg, 1983), but providing no means to visualise specific landscapes.  There are hints of forms in the swirls and patches of colour making up works like Twilight (Skumring) (1983-4) but they are ambiguous and, as with Howard Hodgkin, you feel that these are not paintings that the viewer should try to decipher.  Still, titles matter and I prefer Killeberg and Twilight to Kirkeby's paintings in a similar style with grand historical titles like The Flight Into Egypt.  

It seems quite possible that Kirkeby's brick sculptures will have a longer life than his paintings.  They seem well-suited to become ruins, although I think their uncanny quality derives now from the pristine perfection of their purposeless construction.  I've reproduced a few below but you can easily find others online.

Per Kirkeby, Backsteinskulptur, sculpture park KMM
Source: Wikimedia commons


Per Kirkeby, Backsteinskulptur, Gießen
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Per Kirkeby, Backsteinskulptur, Groningen

1 comment:

Ray Girvan said...

in Kirkeby's case this is based on his early training as a geologist

That's interesting. A number of his paintings - for intsance, Flight into Egypt or The Siege of Constantinople - remind me strongly of mineralogical slides seen under the polarizing microscope (see this amphibolitic schist).