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Exhibition at the Phillips Collection introduces American audiences to Per Kirkeby
Per Kirkeby, A Picture of Yucatan, 1972–73. Mixed media on Masonite, 48 x 48 in. ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus, Denmark.

WASHINGTON, DC.- —This fall, The Phillips Collection presents a survey of Scandinavia’s most highly acclaimed living artist. Per Kirkeby (Danish, b. 1938) is a painter, sculptor, geologist, filmmaker, writer, and poet. Deeply engrossed in natural history and art history, he has had an enormously prolific 40-year career. The most comprehensive display of his work in the U.S. to date, Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture is on view at the Phillips from Oct. 6, 2012, through Jan. 6, 2013.

The exhibition features an eclectic selection of 26 richly layered paintings and 11 striking bronze models by Per Kirkeby (pronounced PEAR KEER-kay-BUH). Kirkeby’s art does not fit into a single style or movement; he believes that art, like science, is constantly in flux. His works incorporate all aspects of natural history, from the progression of humanity to the scientific evolution of the world, reflecting the artist’s considerable curiosity about the infinite variety of life.

“Per Kirkeby’s work calls for slow, deep contemplation, a process the Phillips encourages in its intimate galleries,” says Director Dorothy Kosinski, who curated the exhibition with Curator at Large Klaus Ottmann. “His paintings and sculpture are so filled with color, content, inspiration, and history that they are sure to spark dialogues with works in our collection and among our visitors. We are proud to share the work of this important artist of our time beyond Europe.”

Kirkeby is equally trained in geology and art. In 1958, he studied arctic geology at the University of Copenhagen and began making expeditions to Greenland. His trips to South America in the 1970s to study Mayan ruins reinforced his interest in the cycle of life. In 1962 he enrolled in the newly created Experimental Art School in Copenhagen, which turned away from traditional artistic practice to focus on new genres including pop art, minimalism, and the radical anti-art fluxus movement, along with new materials such as film and performance.

Kirkeby’s deep affinity for Danish romantic naturalism and his scientific training are evident in his paintings that merge the beauty of landscape painting and the grandeur of history painting. Through his energetic brushwork and expressive color combinations, his paintings—some over six feet tall—develop a structure that evokes erosion and geological strata. The Phillips Collection’s Inferno V (1992) exemplifies Kirkeby’s mastery of color.

The exhibition includes several of Kirkeby’s square blackboards (chalk drawings on Masonite) from the 1980s. Because the Masonite drawings can be erased with a sponge—and early on frequently were—Kirkeby used them to sketch and experiment. The process of erasure reflects his belief that nothing is permanent.

In the early 1980s, Kirkeby began creating sculpted plaster forms cast in bronze, mostly working outdoors during the summer on the remote Danish island of Læsø, home to many major 19th-century Danish landscape painters. The dense bronze sculptures evoke fragmented bodies—arms, legs, or heads, that appear to be melting together or falling apart. Kirkeby reworks the limbs into organic forms that vaguely suggest figures, reminiscent of Auguste Rodin. Some of his small experimental bronze models resemble architectural forms and echo the construction of his paintings.

Kirkeby has made more than 20 short films and full-length features that also address art and natural history. Deer Garden: The Romantic Forest (1970), made with Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth, is filmed at a historic nature reserve near Copenhagen—the romantic treatment of the lush landscape and music contrasts with the factual delivery of the spoken commentary about the history of the park and the deer population. The film will be screened continuously during the exhibition. For over 10 years, Kirkeby has also created chapter titles for filmmaker Lars von Trier’s
movies, which similarly evoke a painterly and atmospheric mood without clear narrative.

Kirkeby has published more than 70 books of poetry, essays, and novels. His books on individual artists that he admires include many figures that are important to the Phillips (Eugene Delacroix, Paul Gauguin, El Greco, and Vincent van Gogh), as well as Scandinavian artists. Not traditional monographs, his books are poetic reflections on the artists’ work. A selection of Kirkeby’s films and translations of his writings will be on view in the exhibition, which coincides with the first publication of his writings on art in English.

Kirkeby lives and works in Copenhagen and Læsø, Denmark, and Arnasco, a small town near Genoa, Italy. He has received many prestigious awards including the Ars Fennica Award of the Henna and Pertti Niemistö Art Foundation (1993); the Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation Award (1996); and the Herbert-Boeckl-Preis for his life’s work (2003). Major retrospectives of his work were held at the Tate Modern, London (2009), and the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, Germany (2010). His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Kirkeby has taught at the Art Academy, Karlsruhe; the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin; and the Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main.

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