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Per Kirkeby: In Praise of Diligence

By D.R. Hansen.

Untitled, 1999, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

The polymath Per Kirkeby is arguably Denmark’s only truly international painter. Equally a sculptor, filmmaker and writer, Kirkeby is the dexterous author of more than 30 works of poetry, essays, travel literature and books on other painters as lofty as Picasso, Giacometti and van Gogh. Still to many, Danes included, Kirkeby remains a name unknown. This is despite most of us having aleatory encounters with Kirkeby in and outside of museums at regular intervals. If you’ve walked through a small handful of European cities, chances are you will have witnessed one of his architectural brick sculptures. His work has also been featured in Lars von Trier’s films: he created video art for Breaking the Waves (1996), abstract watercolours for Dancer in the Dark (2000), and the scribbled title cards for the chapters of Antichrist (2009) that brilliantly and eerily evince the psychological trauma penetrating the film.

As when Alejandro Zambra writes of the late Italian-Venezuelan author Alejandro Rossi, it is good to speak of Kirkeby in the present tense “and thus forget that he died last week”. He passed away on the 9th of May 2018, 79 years old, following four years of illness. Kirkeby is deserving of the present tense for there is no doubt that he will continue being one of northern Europe’s most influential artists. As we look back in the rear-window, I suspect that his presence will only increase in his absence, propelling him forward into the light as one of neo-expressionism’s masters, proper — not merely in the mouths of Scandinavians.

I first encountered Kirkeby high above. Entering the Black Diamond, the Danish Royal Library, for the first time, I rode the flat travellator from the newest part of the library and up onto the walkway bridge that connects it to H.J. Holm’s original building from 1906. Standing on the bridge, the Kirkeby Bridge as the librarians call it, I glimpsed the early 20th century down the hall. Age was betrayed in the rows of cartothèques kept in leaden wooden shelves, should one want to consult the collections from the time by way of leafing instead of typing and clicking. Such a prospect elated the bibliophile in my stomach, but an almost natural force held me back, kept me on the bridge: above me, a monumental ceiling painting stretched out. 210 square-metres, oil on wood. It is thanks to Kirkeby that architectures from three periods, and in some manner of thinking, three worlds (1909, 1968, 1999) merge elegantly on the bridge. The immense painting acts as a calming hand, if not one that squeezes you tenderly against the floor. Every time I return to Copenhagen I also return to the bridge. On days when the Danish sun cares enough to bathe us on the patio by the deep blue water of the harbour, the ceiling painting appears to me a tapestry, heavy and beautiful. On my last visit, I felt it is hung too low for the eye to fully take it in in its entirety unless performing a yogic backbend or lying down on one of the low leather sofas on the bridge, should one possess the dauntlessness for such public recline. Other times, it appears a divine terrazzo floor, flipped, giving a cunning sense of the viewer being the wrong way round. Or are they complex clouds, these vivacious, glowing blotches? I have never heard anybody raise their voice or seen anyone run below the painting or in its periphery. It is not done.

Courtesy of The Black Diamond, Royal Danish Library.

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Kirkeby was born in Copenhagen in 1938. He graduated from the University of Copenhagen in 1964, a cand.mag. in natural history and geology. His dissertation was on the geological mapping of the Peary Land peninsula in northern Greenland which extends into the Arctic Ocean. His studies brought him on expeditions to Greenland and Mexico in the 1960s — lasting experiences that furnished his creative thinking and artistic practice. Drawing Greenlandic landscapes tectonically and sensing the geological forces that have shaped them would become central to his work as a painter. Sedimentation and stratification processes are lasting ideas and figure as abstract motifs in his oeuvre, his signature icon being a simple sketch of a complex phenomenon: the fluvial terrace. We find early clues to his 1990s-2000s paintings in the pencil drawings from 1963, held in SMK — National Gallery of Denmark’s collection. But Kirkeby’s focus was equally on pop art at the time. Parallel to his studies, he asked to join Poul Gernes’ experimental group and explored conceptualism and pop alongside the likes of Gernes himself and Bjørn Nørgaard. He also became involved with Joseph Beuys’ Experimental Art School in Düsseldorf as well as Fluxus, the radical interdisciplinary and international community of artists, architects and poets that collaborated in the 1960s–1970s, spearhead by George Maciunas and including artists like Beuys or Yoko Ono. While this involvement is visible in Kirkeby’s graphic linocuts and collage-like paintings on Masonite boards of the decade, he would soon come to develop his singular neo-expressionist style, placing feeling and bravura far above concept, thus breaking with avant-garde conceptualism. And yet nothing in Kirkeby’s career seems to ever have been fully ejectable or entropic. In 2012 he did a series of 21 paint-and-image collages, published this year in the book Close-Up by Strandberg Publishing. Often when artists find their medium they gingerly stick to it, like Rachel Whiteread with her casted negative-space sculptures, but Kirkby was perhaps too much of an intellectual to do so. In 2004 he took on creating four bronze reliefs for the new Copenhagen Opera House — while he had worked in bronze before, relief was new to him.

As his neo-expressionist style developed, Kirkeby became associated with German artists such as Georg Baselitz, A.R. Pench and Anselm Kiefer. Gallerist Michael Werner took on Kirkeby and gave him his first solo exhibition in Cologne in 1974. Kirkeby was included in the Malerei in Deutschland exhibition at Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, as though German by origin, and he taught in Karlsruhe and Frankfurt towards the 1980s. Several of his works bear German titles.

Vindarnas Tempel by Per Kirkeby, 1992. Gothenburg, Sweden. Wikimedia commons.

The first brick sculptures appeared in the 1970s. These are buildings without purpose, erected in the shape of labyrinths, towers, walls, bows. The red bricks salute the simplicity of Danish bricklaying while being reminiscent of Grundtvig Church, an expressionist landmark in the district of Bispebjerg that Kirkeby grew up not far from. The earliest sculptures were shown in museums but quickly found themselves at home in public spaces across Europe where they are experienced daily as convivial to their surroundings. The sculpture in front of Humlebæk Station is from 1994 and provides a prologue to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art for visitors who arrive by train. Its shape is in conversation with the surrounding architecture as well as the buildings one has witnessed through the train window on the journey there, and yet, as a sculpture, it lacks the functionalities of the buildings it references. A similar and much larger sculpture, Brick Work, was shown at Tate Gallery in 1998.

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Four years ago, the artist announced that he had lost the ability to visualise things, and thus to paint, following a tragic fall down the stairs in his Hellerup home. His struggles are documented in Anne Wivel’s touching documentary, Mand Falder (2015). Presciently, he had years before spoken of “the lack of clear contours and steady lines that ultimately are death”, as if prognosticating his own. The sense of falling was also intrinsic to his process and outlook as a painter. A decade ago, Kirkeby told Poul Erik Tøjner, director of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, that a picture is not good before it has gone down. What at first will appear handsome, clever, intelligent, must be brought to an end, must be ruined. Often the morning after it would become clear that what was there on the canvas or Masonite did not suffice. “Paintings that are merely beautiful or riveting in their colours are not enough if there is no structure within.” Only after a degree of “Untergang” or apocalypse can the real picture emerge, rising from the ruins of the beautiful. “I can’t begin by creating that structure. Well, I can, but then it needs to go down. The real structure slowly starts emerging in the picture.”

Untitled, 2000. Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

Kirkeby would often commence a day of work by wiping his brushes in the canvas, creating a swamp of paint that he would then try to bring under control. This was his painterly duty, committing himself to mastering the unruly, managing chaos. As such, it is the painter’s lot to sacrifice something that looks right and may suffice on its own as someone’s idea of a good painting, sacrificing what’s actually really good about it to reach something deeper. “As a painter, you must overcome your own virtuosity,” he told Tøjner.

There is no denying that his ceiling painting at the Black Diamond is of stunning palette, but Kirkeby would not be pleased to hear that. It was never about it being “pretty”, rather, the opposite. “The colours mean something,” he told Tøjner. “The colours have a content, a content that is difficult to remove from the colour. And that’s exactly the point about making a painting.”

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Untitled

All women have a gleam of light across the face.
It’s not always you notice.
If a man sees it on a woman
it is she to whom he will fatally attach.
This light across the face is like a planet’s atmosphere.
Humans cannot live on planets without an atmosphere.

Poem from Den arktiske ørken (The Arctic Desert). Forlaget Borgen 2004. Reproduced and translated by D.R.Hansen by permission of Gyldendal.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
D. R. Hansen has written for Avidly, L.A. Review of Books, International Journal of the Book, CRUMB Magazine, Copenhagen Post, Curator, among others. Her work has been honoured by the prizes London Writing Competition (2010), the Books, Publishing & Libraries Graduate Scholar Award (2016), and the International Award for Excellence, The International Journal of the Book (2018). She works at the Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies and is managing editor of the journal tripleC.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 29th, 2018.