Feature

Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture

At this first major U.S. exhibition of Kirkeby's work, mammoth expressionistic canvases surround visitors.

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Through Jan. 6

The first thing Per Kirkeby hits you with is scale, said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. The 74-year-old painter, a living legend in his native Denmark, started out painting 4-foot-wide panels and just kept going bigger. At this first major U.S. exhibition of his work, mammoth expressionistic canvases surround visitors, their fields of color suggesting “things so large and terrifying that one feels a paradoxical sense of power to see them contained in a room.” Kirkeby’s images seem built of such primal elements and his training in geology informs every gesture. In the 13-foot-wide Earthquake (1983), horizontal lines suggest fault lines or tectonic plates, and the paint has been applied “in rough, forceful strokes, giving a sense of both motion and layers.” He’s not just depicting geological forces, though.  He makes painting seem like “a form of geology itself”—an arena where timeless forces bend the small and particular toward large-scale abstraction. 

“Kirkeby is far too forceful an artist to be so relatively unknown here in the U.S.,” said Sophie Gilbert in Washingtonian. There’s a foreign quality to his vision that feels as if it must have been born in the bleak landscape of Greenland, where he’s spent much time. His images exist “in a con- stant state of flux,” forever veering between representation and abstraction. In Regicide at Finderrup Barn (1967), a shadowy human figure floats above a snow-covered cabin, but both images are subsumed in a larger project—“a lesson in the emotive contrasts of light.” In an untitled work from 2009, trees seem both “real and ephemeral,” a tangle of “moody, illuminated lines in blues and greens.” Kirkeby’s work is “a study in contrasts: neither something, nor nothing, but the space between.” 

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