Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery
Per Kirkeby might be the most famous artist you’ve never heard of.
Despite his fame in Europe, Kirkeby has never gained much exposure in the states. The Phillips Collection is trying to fix this with their current exhibit “Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture,” the largest U.S. exhibition of his work to date.
The 26 paintings and 11 bronze sculptures displayed cover the entirety of Kirkeby’s 40-year career, showcasing the constantly evolving style that has made him Scandinavia’s most celebrated living artist.
Drawing on his background in geology, Kirkeby’s works often rely heavily on layering. A pair of untitled paintings in which Kirkeby used chalk and blackboard paint show off this ethos well, with abstract figures created just as much by rubbing and erasing marks as by the final, clear lines on top. Because of this layering process, curator Klaus Ottmann described Kirkeby’s work as being “larger on the inside than on the outside” during the preview of the exhibit.
Although Kirkeby’s work does require more time from the viewer to digest, there is an important difference between it and art that has an intentionally hidden meaning. Rather than serving as a puzzle for the viewer to solve, Kirkeby’s work can be easily understood. But it takes time to fully appreciate its intricate layering and coloring.
“A lot of people today are shying away from art that’s difficult,” Ottmann said. “My ultimate task is getting people to look at art again — not to understanding it, but looking at it and immersing oneself in it.”
Kirkeby’s work provides a perfect avenue for this goal, as its abstractions are not an attempt to obscure meaning but rather a way to add more depth. “New Shadows V” is a perfect example of this, with a still-recognizable image of a forest abstracted by use of rich yellows and reds painted with an intricacy and sensual attention to each brushstroke that is only apparent upon closer inspection.
Kirkeby also brings to his art an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, allowing him to borrow from and reference multiple movements such as pop art or minimalism without confining himself to the rigidity of these movements. Because of this, Kirkeby’s work accumulates contextual meaning via reference to other movements and artists.
The best thing about Kirkeby’s work, however, is that it doesn’t depend on this context to be appreciated. In fact, the viewer is free to place the works in whatever level of context with which they are most comfortable, as the intricate beauty of these works can stand on its own. The work displayed in this collection demands time from the viewer not because it is confusing or difficult to understand, but rather because these paintings and sculptures get better the longer you look at them.