PRINT February 1989


THE MORE HISTORICALLY RELEVANT an artist’s work is, the more it becomes a matter for interpretation, for it rises above the collective sensibility of zeitgeist or general taste. Historical relevance, then, cannot be equated with joining a set of “masterpieces” that inevitably reflect a museological order of values, but, instead, with developing the concept of a work within a set of possibilities that constitute its necessary condition. Ever since modern artists began experimenting with the limits of such a definition, a vaster range of issues has opened up for us, making it possible to think about and evaluate an artist’s working processes in complex terms that go beyond one-dimensional ideological apologias.

The work of Danish artist Per Kirkeby is one that poses in a very clear but also very complex way the specific question of what personal experience brings to the working process, and under what terms this experience can relate to both a concept of the real and a concept of a work itself. What is, then, questionable at first sight—and that is Kirkeby’s work itself—is also what poses the limits of our own ability to question at all.

For the first obstacle we confront when considering Kirkeby’s work in its entirety is our inability to categorize it neatly. Here is an artist who works in a multiplicity of genres—producing paintings, sculptures, engravings, drawings, architectural or environmental works, performances, photographs, collages, books, films, poems, literary essays, diaries, and then within these various genres, subdivisions including watercolors, Ubermalungen (paintings on already painted canvases), models, plans and architectural renderings, studies, sketches, and so on. It is rare nowadays that an artist applies him- or herself to such an extended field of artistic practice. Beyond this obstacle stands a further: the fact that from one genre to another, Kirkeby’s work does not look stylistically the same. No trademark of a signature style is easily recognizable in the complex of his work as a whole by a viewer who has to consider at the same time, for example, a brick structure, a bronze sculpture, a large painting, and a drawing. But this fact does not reflect Kirkeby’s attempt to create a cult of anonymity. If the question of personal style seems alien to Kirkeby, this is because what may seem relevant or essential on a formal level is superseded by what is relevant to each separate work as Kirkeby focuses on the specificity of what is to be experienced in and through it. For Kirkeby, then, distinctions of genre or category mark out not simply discrete technical identities but manifestations of a historical process in which, with each work, the artist is redefining himself in relation to matter.

There are three terms, therefore, on which we can evaluate the reception of Kirkeby’s work, each corresponding to a different interpretative point of view (short, medium, and long). First, it has been considered in the short, formal view, as it has been “standardized” and “stylized” through the limited selection of his artworks available for viewing in museums and private collections. Second, it has been evaluated on the basis of the role it has played in the artistic and ideological debate of the last decade, as it has become a presence in the European art scene. And third, the making of his work has been considered as it takes its place in the long history of art production. In these three terms, the first enters into a purely qualitative discourse on artworks and on art; the second, into a dialectic of quality and quantity on the level on which art and culture are taken as ideological issues; and the third, into a strongly quantitative definition of cultural history.

If, under the first term, Kirkeby’s work asserts a European “insider’s” possibility for painting and sculpture (or for the so-called visual arts) after Abstract Expressionism in the age of the conceptual “dematerialization of the art object,” it strikes a decidedly “outsider’s” position under the second term. In the ideological debate relating to cultural and artistic issues within Europe over the last two decades, Kirkeby’s work is most strongly related to artmaking and artmakers of the German-speaking countries. That debate can best be summarized as the dialectical opposition between the working practices (on the level of artistic process or formal questions) of Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz on the one hand, and those of Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke (on the level of artistic attitudes or ideological questions) on the other. Kirkeby, though he demonstrates a significant concern with both sets of questions, cannot be placed definitely in either “camp.” For, under the third term, Kirkeby’s work must be considered in the specific context of Danish art, which, from the time of Thorvaldsen, has been charted through ever-shifting configurations of affinities and influences—as sketched out as recently as the 1984 Eindhoven Van Abbemuseum exhibition “Uit Het Noorden [From the North]: Edvard Munch, Asger Jorn, Per Kirkeby”—in order to posit a complex yet effective European dynamic that also extends meaningfully into an international context.

Yet under all three terms, the elements considered are more or less external, explicit, and exterior to the constitution of Kirkeby’s work. They would individually entail a highly selective and ideological reduction of his work either to museological or marketing values, or to a critical chess game of already settled positions of art notions and principles—such as tradition versus avant-garde, attitudes versus forms, myths versus history, and so on—or into a duly historical cataloguing that is essential to the formulation of a national history of art and culture, but that for Kirkeby’s work is an irrevocable but not a fundamental concern.

In order to unravel such a complex situation without missing the artist’s work, we shall have to look for an interpretative network encompassing all three of these terms, and one that simultaneously embraces the concept of a “Danish,” a “German,” a “European,” and a “universal” artist. For the work of an artist such as Kirkeby—which has traveled through and taken on most of the formal, philosophical, and historical issues of the last twenty-five years—requires a perspective that transcends “symptomatic” or analytical limits, that goes beyond any already given context for qualitative and quantitative facts, or even any mechanistic dialectic of both. We must look instead for the necessary condition that is constitutive for each work in a body of work that becomes an irreducible reality. Only at such a synthetic level can the critical approach correspond to and illuminate the synthetic work of the artist. From such a perspective, we cannot pretend that the work of any artist assumes a finality that turns accidental and anecdotal terms into the necessary and historical conditions of a work. Nor can we assume that the set of possibilities at stake for the artist will codify into an explicit system of rules or a definite attitude or position that would be recognizable under the same terms in each manifestation of the work. Third, it should also be pointed out that the components of the general context in which the art develops will not always coincide with the conventional definitions or notions of encyclopedic knowledge. Therefore, every notion that is asserted or attributed to a discussion of Kirkeby’s work may have to be thought out and redefined according to the specific experience that each individual artwork embodies and offers, and to the general working principles from which this body of work emerges.

WHAT WE HAVE arrived at, then, is not a set of fixed postulates concerned with tendencies, but a confrontation with a set of concrete experiences that organically demonstrate the limits that the activity of making art shares with the possibility of receiving that art and grasping its meaning; in effect, a problematic set of borderlines between historical and personal experience, between being and being there. Posited in perceptual terms, this dialectical movement—which cannot be resolved—between an inconceivable end and an unattainable proximity constitutes the motif of Per Kirkeby’s work.

At this point, then, we should introduce a significant element, one that may seem exclusively, however evocatively, tied to his “esthetic” biography, yet that in fact serves to illuminate a profound influence in Kirkeby’s experience of the world and of things. The fact is that Per Kirkeby has sustained, alongside his artistic work, his scientific work in the field of geology. This element should now lead us directly to consider an even greater range of possibilities in which to define the necessary condition of his work. For the study of geology, an understanding of geology, unexpectedly expands the borderlines between historical and personal experience, marking out both the distance and the kinship between an artistic and a scientific approach—and on both the highly conceptual and mental level and the clearly material and physical one. Suddenly, Kirkeby’s notion of “being” can embrace all possible levels and degrees of existence, from inorganic stone to living matter to the world itself—and his notion of “being there” can imply both the purest notions of chance and accident and the strongest definitions of necessity and essence.

According to a remark by Carl Andre, “A man climbs a mountain because it is there. A man makes a work of art because it isn’t there.” Per Kirkeby’s work relates not only to the second part of this aphorism—like that of most artists—but to both parts. Consistently, rather than relying on a mere economy of absence, Kirkeby’s work moves between the very physical and pragmatic condition of what is there to the abstracted and conceptual condition of what isn’t. It is under these terms that we can understand the character of that perpetual dialectical movement between an unconceivable end and an unattainable proximity as the constituent motif of his work.

In one among the very many and peculiarly penetrating texts that Kirkeby himself has written on art, he says: “It has gradually become clear to me that all my paintings deal with holes or caves. Holes in the materiality, which can be like living in caves, looking out. Or looking into a cave. These remarkable vertiginous views through the material. The desperation of the nebulae.”1 Indeed, we can say that Kirkeby’s metaphor is the motif of his work, concretely enacted in vastly different physical and formal constitutions. In the quoted text, Kirkeby confines this metaphor to his paintings. Yet on a conceptual level, it is relevant in some way to his entire oeuvre. For the metaphor of a hole or of a cave should be considered here a Dasein-Metapher (existential metaphor) in the sense German philosopher Hans Blumenberg defines it in his writing. As Kirkeby has stated in another text: “The motif is the start, the occasion, the entrance to the world. But The Great Striving reduces this starting motif to a tool in the service of another ‘deeper’ and indescribable motif. This motif can be neither described nor captured by the artist, and lives with the exterior motif like the good skin against its environment. The feeling that something other than what is shown is moving. That the skin is deceptive. This other one, the ‘deeper’ could be called, for want of a better expression, the structures.”2

A long series of images relating more or less to the motif of an entrance to the world is one way we might characterize Kirkeby’s work. We can discern its explicit articulation in a series of photographs reproduced in the catalogue of his 1979 retrospective at the Kunsthalle, Bern; its implicit presence in sculptures such as Ikast, 1973, and Modell: Tor (Model: gate, 1981); its fundamental assertion in paintings such as Trockos, 1982, or Kerzen im Licht (Candles in the light, 1983). However explicit and conscious this relation is for the artist, nevertheless the work produced grasps as its mental space the indescribability of the “deeper” motif. On a working level, somewhere in between the abstract process and the final art, Kirkeby’s images exist concretely, participating directly in a multiple and complex reality that embraces both the exterior world and interior feeling, both the given world of things and the historical one of artworks and practices. If his images refer to definite objects, situations, memories, and perceptions experienced by Kirkeby, they always, at the same time, reflect a journey into the world from either the point of view of “looking out of a hole” or “looking into a cave.” That visual journey will be expressed in different forms, depending on the degree of resistance of the thing that has to be elaborated and transformed. Thus the relation of the artist to his practices, in Kirkeby’s work, does not lie anymore in the exercise of inherited or traditional codes. Nor does it signify a purely ideological or conceptual transgression of given Modernist codes. Instead, out of the time of both a lived experience and its history, like geological layers, it emerges into materiality as both history and phenomenology. Kirkeby’s various tools (genres and materials themselves) become the metaphor that is motif.

In this light, Kirkeby’s work is the positing of the motif as an emanation of structural elements, and the varying degrees of interference with that motif that each work presents. What is there in these pieces, then, always points to a possible position—a being there—for the artist (and by extension, for the viewer). All possible abstractions of ideologically preconceived definitions or prejudices are cast aside, or, more accurately, set aside between parentheses. They are then, in a certain sense, not necessarily overcome, but simultaneously acknowledged and rendered inoperational. Yet what then remains to be seen with the thing that is there are also these parentheses, which serve to keep a certain number of other things away, to manage a content like a void—like the boundaries of a hole or a cave. (It’s important to remember here that Kirkeby is not only known as a visual artist and a geologist, but also as a writer, a poet, for whom the demarcation of parentheses signifies a suspension of continuity, both a residual trace and a void, both a possibility and a missing event.) Whatever specific images appear in his work (whether it be a crystal, or a tree trunk, or a window, or a door, or a landscape), we find ourselves in a position of looking out of it or looking into it throughout its materiality. Kirkeby’s relationship to the material surface (the “skin,” as he calls it) ineluctably requires that a dimension be opened up in order to go beyond the articulated image or object to reach the real thing.

Since this dimension, this surface that has to be opened, is resistant, we are always faced with our own inability to describe clearly what is within the parentheses and what is without. Thus, neither decidedly exterior nor interior, this dimension stands as the vertigo of the hole, as the desperation of the nebulae. This “deeper” motif—or structure, as Kirkeby refers to it—in its opacity is both a beginning and an end. As we necessarily move from one to another—from the motif (as theme or as subject matter, as “skin” or as soil, as facade or as aspect, as metaphor or as image) to the difficulty of the “deeper” dimension that cannot be captured or described—the shocks of passage transform the material reality of the work into the place of an event: the threshold of the unfathomable. It is in this place that the practice of work is joined with the material reality of the work to become historical reality. All of a sudden, the work—Kirkeby’s work—stands there indivisible and definite as a brick stone, including in its substance both earth and water, both air and fire, and incorporating, at the same time, all the series of forms and functions of the “being there” practices and achievements of history. In between inauguration and conclusion lies the structure or the necessary condition of Kirkeby’s work: the only exact distance between matter and mind, between nature as chance and history as necessity—art itself is the condition.

Denys Zacharopoulos is an art critic who lives in Paris.

Translated from the French by Francois Boué.



1. Per Kirkeby, Selected Essays from Bravura, Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 1982, P. 64.
2. Per Kirkeby, “Grensoverschrijding” (Stepping over the border), in Uit Her Noorden: Edvard Munch, Asger Jorn, Per Kirkeby, exhibition catalogue, Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 1984, p. 67.