Per Kirkeby is far too forceful an artist to be so relatively unknown here in the US. In the past five years alone, retrospectives of his work have gone on display in London, Dusseldorf, Basel, and his native Copenhagen, with smaller shows everywhere from Berlin to Brussels. In a review of one show at Tate Modern, the London Guardian described his works as “rich, earthy, spearing, dynamic, fiercely inquiring, solemn droll, skeptical, and yet abundantly romantic; perhaps a portrait of the artist as much as his art.”
And yet this side of the Atlantic, the only chance viewers might have had to see his work is in Lars von Trier films (he created new pieces for Antichrist, Breaking the Waves, and Dancer in the Dark), or via the costumes and set for the New York City Ballet’s 2007 production of Romeo and Juliet, which Kirkeby designed. But no longer: This weekend, Kirkeby gets his first major American show at the Phillips Collection.
“Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture,” on display October 6 through January 6, brings together 26 of the 72-year-old artist’s paintings alongside 11 bronze sculptures. The show is a bold move on the part of the Phillips, but it also seems like a natural fit for the institution, which has long had an idiosyncratic approach to art. Kirkeby’s work often repeats motifs, explores similar themes, and riffs on works by other great artists—just as the pieces at the Phillips are arranged to “communicate” with one another, Kirkeby’s paintings, sculptures, and works on paper all manage to offer different facets of the same idea, exploring broad, elemental questions of space, time, and earth.
Kirkeby’s background is in geology, a fact that seems to lie at the core of much of his work. While studying at the University of Copenhagen, he first went to Greenland in 1958, and has been making exploratory missions to the island ever since. An exhibition earlier this year at Denmark’s Ordrupgaard museum looked at the legacy of Kirkeby’s 50-year relationship with the Northern Arctic regions and the influence the sparse, clean, bleak landscape has had on the artist. Working in such a barren environment has seemed to place Kirkeby’s art in a constant state of flux. Some shapes are familiar, some abstract. He offers a study in contrasts: dark and light, warm and cool, rough and smooth—neither something, nor nothing, but the space between. “Without conflict, there are no pictures,” he wrote in 1991.
In Denmark, Kirkeby is something of an icon—his paintings hang in every major museum in the country, and an imposing large-scale work, “A Romantic Picture,” takes up almost an entire wall in the Danish National Gallery. Kirkeby also painted a vast mural on the ceiling of the new Royal Danish Library, an imposing granite structure known as the “Black Diamond” that sits on the Copenhagen waterfront. To view it, visitors approach from a moving escalator, meaning that the monumental fresco seems to move like a kaleidoscope, its many painted panels of differing colors and textures shifting in space.
The works on display at the Phillips date from the 1960s to 2010, covering a broad swath of Kirkeby’s career from his time spent as a member of the experimental eks-skolen to his more recent status as one of Scandinavia’s greatest artists. There’s 1967’s “Regicide at Finderrup Barn,” a lesson in the emotive contrasts of light, with a clearly recognizable snow-covered cabin sitting underneath a much larger shadowy human figure. “A Picture of Yucatan, 1972-73” is more vivid, and reveals the influences Mayan culture and symbolism had on the artist, as well as the scratches Kirkeby makes in paint to create depth and texture. The work also feels almost impressionist in its sense of hazy yellow light and lush green landscape.
And in “Untitled, 209,” trees—a common subject in Kirkeby’s work—make an appearance as moody, illuminated lines in blues and greens. The meandering shapes give a sense of something both real and ephemeral, captured in a tangle of likenesses. But don’t expect Kirkeby to explain them in more than abstract terms. “Art doesn’t bloody well come from nothing,” the artist told Hans Jørgen Frederiksen in 2010. “It is always about something—not in the sense of being readable, but it is always about something, and it always comes from something.”
“Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture” is at the Phillips Collection from October 6 through January 6. For more information, visit the Phillips Collection’s website.