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Enigmatic Per Kirkeby Gets A Show At the Phillips Collection

On Saturday, I took the train to Washington for a look at a couple of exhibitions — one being the retrospective for Danish artist Per Kirkeby at the Phillips Collection. I was not very familiar with his work, but I knew he is considered to be the best (“most highly acclaimed,” the Phillips says in its press release) Scandinavian artist working today. 

As I walked around the show, I couldn’t figure him out at all. Some paintings were colorful, almost decorative (like New Shadows V, right); others, muddy, indistinct (like Untitled, 1993, left). His bronzes seemed unrelated (not necessarily bad). The selection was very eclectic, and I wasn’t sure how representative these pieces are of his work. They are all said to be about nature, natural history, and sometimes a merger of “the beauty of landscape painting and the grandeur of history painting.” 

But almost everywhere I saw aspects of other artists better-known in the United States — Guston, Mitchell, Rauschenberg, Richter, Twombly, Salle even — and I tried to figure out from the dates who influenced whom. (One painting, Untitled 2009, which shows horses — a red one, a yellow one — seemed very related to art I’d seen in Iceland in 2011.) When I got home, still thinking about Kirkeby, I thought of the chart that MoMA’s curators and the Columbia University Business School have devised laying out social networks among artists for MoMA’s coming Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925, which will open in late December. (This was called to my attention by a recent article in ARTNews headlined “MoMA Makes A Facebook for Abstractionists.”) Here’s the link to the social network chart (be sure to magnify it, or you’ll strain your eyes), and you can see that Picasso, Kandinsky, Sonia Delaunay and others had the widest networks. 

Kirkeby, born in 1938, obviously wasn’t on it, but it made me wonder what his network would look like.  

I don’t think I’m the only one a bit mystified by Kirkeby. Notice that this review (which has a very good slide show), in Washingtonian, starts out quoting a British review: 

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.” 

I got hints as well from an interview with Kirkeby by Dorothy Kosinski, the director of the Phillips, in the catalogue. Such as:

  • “There’s this whole idea of being first with some kind of invention or someone being rare and so on. What does it all mean? Artists are there in their own time and they have different reactions, and essentially they are all good. Even the artists we do not like have done their very best, and you have to respect that.” 
  • On a trip to New York, he met George Maciunas, who asked him if he were part of Fluxus. “I don’t want to be a member, because basically I am a painter. I am attached to material and flamboyant things.” 
  • “In the painter community [in Europe], it was not so good to be an intellectual. But I couldn’t change the way I was and still am.” 
  • “It’s far too easy a conclusion, that I paint layer upon layer, therefore I’m a geologist. I wouldn’t emphasize geology too much.” 
  • “In painting, you have to invent, each time, a set of rules. …At a certain point, I know it’s finished and the painting kicks me out.” 
  • “[My wife sometimes] looks in [my studio] and says, ‘that’s beautiful,’ and then this painting is doomed.” 
  • “It’s very easy to be pessimistic about contemporary [art], because it’s all against my idea of art. There is something very didactic about it…”

 That’s enough to give you a feel for Kirkeby’s sentiments – you’ll have to read the catalogue (too bad that an excerpt of the interview isn’t online). Some of you may find him to be pretentious, but I didn’t. I not entirely convinced by his art, but having read parts of the catalogue I think he’s thought-provoking. Which is what an artist is supposed to be, right?

Good for the Phillips for introducing many of us to this artist.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Phillips Collection


  1. Kirk de Gooyer says:

    Thanks for expanding interest in Per Kirkeby. Michael Werner has regularly shown his work in NYC. This presentation and upcoming forum in DC Nov 2-4 should broaden all of our understanding.

  2. Written like a true North American art writer with references to American artists that might have influenced Kirkeby or reversed.This premise is lazy to start with and Kirkeby is on his own program and thankfully does not conform too much to the standards of the known art world.He happens to look quite different than the artists you mentioned and as an artist myself that is important to recognize. in the group of of second generation abstract artists of NYC, Friedl Dzubas looked quite different than Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski and a lot of others who were painting and showing in NY. Clement Greenberg talked about this on many occasions in my studio and in other artists places that I knew in Canada and the US..The exhibitions of those times were without much of the presence of European abstract artists who emigrated to America.That does not make the art any less better just that the public consumes its own in their time in a place like New York.This move made that artist less visible but found a place later in his career in America. The market shifts and the magazines and commercial exhibitions highlight this change and artists like Kirkeby are found by public curators and art writers eventually in America. His work was always there in plain sight to be seen in Europe at Michael Werner’s and many other places throughout.I happened to see it 25 years ago and thought it was very different but vital.To know that there are artists who confuse writers is perhaps a good thing and it brings to mind that landscape painting is not dying nor has died but transforms because of artists who take a different approach and stay with their own program.David Alexander,Canadian artist.

    • Well, I don’t know why you would go on the attack when I say quite clearly that I couldn’t figure out Kirkeby and had not seen much if any of his work before in person. So I wrote a first impression. And I complimented the Phillips for introducing us to PK. What I’ve read about him since seeing this exhibit hasn’t been persuasive to me. But all art is subjective, and I’m glad you appreciate his work. Just let others make up their own minds.

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