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
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)print