New York

Per Kirkeby

Per Kirkeby’s abstract paintings seem to take American nature—Walden and Skowhegan—as their starting point. But “Walden” also suggests “forest” in German, indicating an irony on the part of these works, which mock allusive semblance even as they pursue elusive expressive semblance. The catalogue preface—a passage from Bruce Chatwin, in which Diana Vreeland confuses “Wales” with “whales”—suggests the eloquently chameleonlike character of the paintings. In general, the works constitute a tour de force of gesturalism—in which nature shows the range of her tempers through a seemingly infinite variety of evanescent textures and shapes, quasikaleidoscopically merging with one another, in eager response to the artist’s dispositions in her presence. It is as though each work is the fragment of an endless self-differentiating process. Strung together, they suggest a more rustic Monet flux.

But this sense of elation in nature’s presence may be false—may be the product of an expressive ease too good to be true; this is the irony that the catalogue quotation echoes. For the works seem to exist on the borderline between the idea of painting as an organic creation and the idea of it as a simulated one à la Gerhard Richter. Kirkeby seems tempted, on the one hand, to be “true” to nature and art as equally creative processes, and, on the other hand, to acknowledge them as reified conceptions. In other words, Kirkeby’s paintings are simultaneously moving and funny about wanting to be moving; they have a kind of tongue-in-cheek quality in the midst of professed innocence, and vice versa. Every gesture reveals a lyric sensitivity to and love of nature, but each also bespeaks an old artistic habit. Indeed, it is hard to determine whether Kirkeby’s paintings are informed by a knack for perceiving the creative fluidity of nature or simply a knack for what looks like very rapid, super-skillful painting. The works have that old fashioned virtue of painterly presence, and even of poetic verisimilitude—oblique representation—but they also seem to stylize spontaneity, as if to say that it is a prosaic old idea. Do they, then, fossilize the gesturalism they raise from the grave in the very act of doing so?

Nonetheless, I have to admit to being taken in by their healthy “north woods” eroticism. There’s the smell of clean, clear air and unspoiled nature in these paintings. Kirkeby probably felt an echo of his Scandinavian homeland in New England—or, at any rate, a fantasy of it. But I love a good poetic illusion, even when it all too conspicuously shows how it is constructed, and even when it recalls similar illusions—similar abstract dreams of mythical paradises. Indeed, Kirkeby’s subject is finally natural paradise lost; in other words, his paintings represent wish-fulfilling memories of a nature that never was—a benign nature, unspoiled by art.

Donald Kuspit