Per Kirkeby

The facetious remark from the ’50s (often attributed to Ad Reinhardt), that sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting, said something important about modern art. The notion that objects can and should be exhibited in the middle of a space is relatively new: until the demise of Neoclassicism, it had been standard practice to place sculpture against walls, in niches, or under arcades. One of the main reasons sculpture began moving about freely, and became an obstacle, was the modern love affair with things that shock and rebuff. When an object is isolated in space, it is also much harder to find an ideal viewing position.

When I backed up to see the six new Per Kirkeby paintings in the Tate Gallery, I bumped into a sculpture, also by Kirkeby, formed of 20,000 red bricks. Brick Work, 1998—a mazelike sequence of four interlocking walls—is a deliberate provocation and impediment to anyone who comes here to view the paintings. At 88 1/2 feet long, 8 1/2 feet wide, and 13 feet high, this piece is almost in the Richard Serra super-league of Unavoidable Artworks. The structure’s plan derives from the double helix, the figure that makes up a DNA molecule. Narrow gaps between the four sections just barely allow one person to squeeze through, and the sculpture bisects and usurps the navelike space of the Tate’s sculpture galleries, built during the ’30s in a ponderous neoclassical style.

Kirkeby first attracted international attention during the early ’80s with busily worked canvases that seemed equally indebted to Constable and early Rauschenberg. Since then, his work has slowed down considerably, seeming to focus on less frantic and ephemeral states. One could say that the feeling is more geological than meteorological (Kirkeby was in fact trained as a geologist). Dense patches of hot and cold color collide with the lumbering force of shifting tectonic plates or skirt each other like flowing lava. This sense of impacted groping, of delayed motion, is what links the canvases to the sculptures. As with Brick Work, it is difficult for the viewer to find a point of entry into the paintings, which have a slablike obduracy. Any fissures or gaps seem like cul-de-sacs.

The paintings are not turgid and inert, however, because of a redeeming brittleness, flakiness, even scabbiness. The sequence of marks that pitter-patter across Withdrawn from the World, 1997, derives from representations of mountains in Byzantine art. This primarily gold, brown, and steely gray painting resembles an overhead view of a disused quarry. Here, it is skin, flesh, and blood that have been withdrawn from the world; only bone remains. Kirkeby has remarked that he thinks of his paintings as “thin sculpture,” and when he scores and frets the surface of his pictures, it is almost as though he is skating on thin ice.

Elsewhere in the sculpture galleries appear a series of twenty small bronzes dating from 1985 to 1993. Some of these purport to be architectural models for projects in cities like Amsterdam or Mönchengladbach, but they are less like proposals for buildings of the future than the inchoate ruins of landmarks from the past. Cast from clay models, they seem to melt and ooze before our very eyes, somewhat like Oldenburg’s food sculptures or Beuys’ fat pieces. In these works, Kirkeby posits an architecture that would be a slow death trap, impossible to inhabit.

James Hall