Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Abstract Expressionism Is Alive and Well in Denmark

Per Kirkeby at Michael Werner

September-15 to October 29, 2011
4 East 77th Street, between Fifth and Madison avenues
New York City, 212 988 1623

Installation shot of the exhibition under review

Installation shot of the exhibition under review

Abstract Expressionism was the first major painting style created wholly in America.

Although many of the artists were depressive personalities, their ambitious art depended upon the support of a militarily victorious society that, thanks to its post-war prosperity, had good reason to feel successful. And so, when their art was emulated by Frenchmen, Italians and Japanese, inevitably the results were very different. Per Kirkeby (1938- ) was trained as a geologist in his native Denmark. His catalogue essay, “Europe/America,” nicely illustrates what happens when a gifted writer borrows a language which is not his own. His paintings are the visual equivalents to this linguistic drift.

Responding in a highly distinctive way to American Abstract Expressionism, Kirkeby uses nature as his source:

Landscapes are about beauty and death. The only way you can define beauty . . . is to know that death is hiding behind it. This is what haunts you when you’re doing a so-called landscape painting. *

Sometimes he shows close up sunflower patterns. Frequently he inserts rounded large organic forms behind narrow lines of paint running horizontally across the picture. His distinctive palette, with its reds, greens, yellows and blues is darkly luminous. Occasionally he opens up the picture, allowing you to look as if into a distant landscape. All seven paintings in the show are Untitled, all were made in 2010 or 2011, and all are vertically oriented rectangles. In the natural light of the gallery, they look different in the morning and near closing time, when the windows cast shadows on the two pictures on the right hand wall.

Like Willem de Kooning, Kirkeby is a virtuoso at creating unity from what, judging just from my poor verbal description may sound like visual chaos.  In fact, out of varied colors, very various brushwork (often using short awkward strokes) and a variety of shapes, he creates an always-satisfying pictorial unity.  You can better understand this show by going twenty-three blocks downtown to deKooning’s MoMA retrospective. The Dutch-American master is a fleshy artist, even when he paints landscapes; Kirkeby, by contrast, is a Northern Romantic in the tradition of Munch, Nolde and Strindberg. These two masters thus have totally different sensibilities. We Americans tend to think that Abstract Expressionism is a style of the past, dependent upon a worldview that no longer commands assent. And we have become suspicious of painterly virtuosity. This exhibition shows that we are wrong—Kirkeby’s splendid paintings demonstrate that Abstract Expressionism is a living tradition.

* quoted in Helaine Posner, Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT List Visual Arts Center, 1992)

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2011. Tempera on canvas, 78-3/4 x 63 inches (200 x 160 cm).  Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York

click to enlarge

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2011. Tempera on canvas, 78-3/4 x 63 inches (200 x 160 cm).  Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York

click to enlarge

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2011. Tempera on canvas, 78-3/4 x 63 inches (200 x 160 cm).  Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York

click to enlarge

  • Peter Reginato

    Terrific review.. wasn’t completely sure where you were going with it and Id say AB-X is alive and well in America too…

    • Scott Bennett

      I think the statement that, “…we have become suspicious of painterly virtuosity…”, makes a very timely and important point. I swore not to use the word “important” when speaking of art matters, as it is one of the most over-used and least meaningful descriptors that can be used when speaking or writing about art,….but in this case, I think it applies. How well a painting is painted IS important and integral to the level of the art. And this refers to color sensibility as well as paint handling.

      The notion that abstract expressionism is not relevant anymore for any reason, does not make any sense to me, and it is refreshing to read Mr Carrier’s very direct comment about this. It seems that there are some indisputable creative moments in history that have shaped and formed and influenced subsequent generations of artists. The influences of Impressionism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism run very deep, and continue to be mined by artist’s around the world. While Monet, Matisse and other pre-abstract expressionist painters were already handling paint in ways that predicted abstract expressionism, ( Monet’s wisteria pictures from 1920 ), it was the full blast focus on painterly mark making that makes abstract expressionism “important” in the history of painting. This opened things up, in a very big way, for generations to follow. At this point in history, it is integrated unconsciously into any painters psyche with a bent toward painterly painting.

      There will always be camps. But if you love painting, and what it offers at it’s very best, then the whole history of painting, from the cave walls to the most austere, industrial looking and presently fashionable “resin coated” surfaces, will be fodder for inspiration.

  • Melany Terranova

    Mr. Carrier. My October visit to NYC can NOT come a moment too soon …I WILL look at the Kirkeby and dekooking shows, 23 blocks apart with great interest! What fun!

    The quotation….that landscapes are about life and death, was a good one. I am aware of the duality in everything….but sometimes, I just like to focus on the present. If one “accepts” death as a natural happening, can we then release some of the focus on it? (have observed that the preocccupation with death prevents some from fully being engaged with the present…they are always looking/anticipating death). Do not recommend
    avoiding the acknowlegement of it….but feeling it hovering all the time
    is a downer. I see some people fighting it remarkably and living zestfully….and others so preoccupied with it they give in…give up.

    I have the greatest story to share with you about a geranium in a pot.
    It’s story is about life! Living! My husband and I had a lot of travel
    scheduled…so we left this lone geranium out on the patio to fade away
    on it’s own schedule. Over the months, we witnessed this geranium fighting for it’s life like crazy…..grabbing a splash of rain every now and then as plants do in dry Arizona. Eventually I was almost shamed to have given this plant such an existence of struggle. The geranium made it through to the next season. And, I wondered… many of us would fight that hard for life? I am not sure I would. It was such a lesson. So, sometimes I prefer hope…….

  • Brian rutenberg


    Your review is humble and generous. I agree that ab/ex and this type of muscular, sensual painting in general is indeed vital. I like PK’s sense of drawing in paint as well.

    Brian Rutenberg

  • Flemming Stenslund

    Just a few comments:
    I don’t think Mr. Kirkeby views himself as an abstract expressionist painter. The way he paints also hint at this. He is slow. He is conservative, meaning that he makes use of the same painting techniques as the early Renaissance painters, from the Lowlands and Italy.
    I don’t think he likes to be called a landscape painter either. He has developed an extensive spiritual insight, where death – and faith – play an important role, because he came very close to death after a stroke, a few years back. He has also been through a, I expect, painful divorce.
    In my view, he somehow, wants to have all aspects of the human condition
    represented. And it is not easy to put that into words. In Denmark, he has done some important altarpieces too. The way the old masters painted the calvary rock is hinted at by K. A tree plank often appears. A piece of the Cross?
    He is a geologist, but that doesn’t relate to his painting as such. Rather geology show us examples of destruction and “ressurrection”.
    But I’m rather certain that Mr. K would resist being called a religious artist. He opposes labels. And of course he and his work has developed over the decades. For him, as for us all, existence remains an enigma.

    Flemming Stenslund