As one of Denmark's most significant international contemporary artists, Per Kirkeby's artistic career spanning over 50 years traversed the diverse fields of geology, painting, architecture, sculpture, film, writing, printmaking, graphics, and ballet set design.Read More
Although Per Kirkeby, who was born in Copenhagen in 1938, discovered a fondness for painting in his early teens, he initially pursued a career in natural history, beginning studies at the University of Copenhagen in 1957, from which he would emerge with a master's degree in arctic geology in 1964. His interest in geology, nature and the Danish landscape, would become the foundation of his poetry, films, and artworks.
In the 1960s, Per Kirkeby's art practice was influenced by prevailing avantgarde trends. Studying at The Experimental Art School of Copenhagen under Danish Conceptualist Poul Gernes, he experimented with graphics, collage, painting, film, and happenings, and met Joseph Beuys, Bjørn Nørgaard, and Henning Christiansen, amongst other influential figures. In 1966, he met Fluxus leader George Maciunas in New York, cementing his name in the international avantgarde scene.
Per Kirkeby's brick sculptures possess a distinct architectural clarity. The imposing red-brick structures reference both traditional Danish housing and Mayan temples. Many of the brick works, like Murstensskulptur (1994), loom large as both art and architecture, straddling the line between being sculptures within a space, and becoming the space itself.
Throughout his career, Per Kirkeby's paintings rejected conceptualism in favour of a dramatic, expressive and poetic style, abstract and yet whispering at the landscapes that preoccupied so much of the artist's mind during his scientific studies. In Composition (1978), layers of muted colours have been applied in swathes of gestural brush strokes, culminating in an abstract canvas full of movement and life.
Kirkeby worked on several design projects later in his career, including Danish postal stamps and set design for Peter Martins' Swan Lake at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. Per Kirkebys drawings, made on numerous geological trips to Greenland, were published as etchings in Feltbogen (Field Book) in 1994.
In 2013, Per Kirkeby suffered brain damage due to a fall. He did not paint again, though he continued to create art and exhibit in various capacities, including opening a joint exhibition with conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner at Galleri Susanne Ottesen in Copenhagen in 2014. For the exhibition, the conceptual art heavyweights joined forces to create a signature Kirkeby brick structure painted with the phrase 'Torn Asunder with a Spark from Above'.
Per Kirkeby passed away in 2018, leaving behind a long and diverse legacy.
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2020