Per Kirkeby was born in 1938, in Copenhagen. In 1957, he enrolled at the University of Copenhagen as a student of geology. Excursions led to him to Greenland in 1958 and 1960 where he did first depictions of landscape impressions. In the context of mineralogical studies and research on various materials, Kirkeby developed a specific interest in the detailed investigation of material substances and their structures which he captured in early drawings and paintings. In 1962, Kirkeby also became a student at the Experimental Art School in Copenhagen, focusing on painting and graphic arts and on film. In 1964, Kirkeby received a doctorate in geology, and in the same year he also had his first exhibition of drawings and collages. Later, Kirkeby taught at the Kunstakademie Karlsruhe (1978) and at the Städelschule, Frankfurt (1989 — 200) as a lecturer.
Between 1963 and 1974, Kirkeby’s artistic work was shaped through his contacts with Fluxus artists, his focus on conceptual projects, and his participation in Performances. Yet around 1970, it became evident that he had found his own venues of expression mainly in collages and in various painting and printing techniques. He produced pictures on canvas or on serially arranged panels made of woodfiber (masonite) that create associative references to nature through coloring, landscape elements, and perspectival representation. Sometimes, object-related motifs such as types of architecture or fences transform nature associations into more concrete landscape paintings (Der Blaue Zaun (The Blue Fence), 1965; Das Urteil des Paris (The Judgment of Paris), 1966; Untitled,1968;Vögel, begraben im Schnee (Birds, Buried in the Snow), 1970). Furthermore, Kirkeby was concerned with figural associations in gestural style, reminding of the group CoBrA (Hul-og punktdamed, 1964/66; Soltemplet, 1969). In these paintings, color becomes a significant agent, either in color fields that are demarcated and overlayered with patterns, or in tightly interlinked hachures.
Narrative-figural assciations have kept reemerging in Kirkeby’s work (Das Herabnehmen (The Taking Down), 1985; Vibeke, Kristall (Vibeke, Crystal), 1983). Yet in the years to follow, the creation of abstract nature or landscape impressions evolved as a basic interest: »My relation to the landscape is a professional one. But I do see myself as a painter concerned with space who plays different kinds of tricks and asks himself just what that which we usually call landscape may actually be. Is it only something shaped by culture? I always try to get there in a different way. The landscape elements in my pictures are like a dummy or a stage set with which I play around« (trans. from: Kirkeby im Gespräch H.-N. Jocks, in: Kunstforum International, 135/1996). Kirkeby created color compositions that structure the picture field in multiple material layers, sometimes as All-over painting. Color and shape of the often monumental pictures generate perceptions of sedimented deposits of soil and rock surfaces, or of vegetable patterns like foliage and lichen, without actually representing these motifs. In 1982, Kirkeby created a group of works, consisting of Indian ink drawings, where he developed a pictorial vocabulary that appears prototypical and that he kept returning to in later graphic series. His often untitled works play with the little defined and unnameable aspects of nature experiences. The effects of a light shade of dark and of the light also create plastic and spatial associations of narrative components (Beatus Apokalypse, 1989). Furthermore, art-historical predecessors play a highly significant role, among them Paul Monet and Paul Cézanne, both of whom he explicitly refers to.
Since the early 1960s, Kirkeby has also concentrated on brick sculpture. His works are usually done as architectonic brick installations, placed in exterior space (Backsteinskulptur (Brick Sculpture) Skulpturenprojekt Münster, 1986). In 2004, a group of works was installed on the Insel Hombroich [museum island]. Moreover, since the 1980s, Kirkeby has also done bronze sculptures. They are again of a more figural character, drawing on elements of nature, such as tree trunks (Tor II(Gate II), 1987; Torso II, 1983, Torso Ast (Torso Branch), 1987).
The multi-facetedness of Kirkeby’s work also shows itself in his comprehensive film work, begun in 1968, and in his literary œuvre that has accompanied his artistic work from the very beginning.
Aside from his numerous exhibitions at large international museums, Kirkeby participated in the Venice Biennale several times. He also presented his works at the Documenta 7 and 9 (1982, 1992). Among the further locations and institutions where his works have been shown are the Kestner Gesellschaft, Hanover, Germany (1992), the Tate Gallery London and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (both 1998), and the Kunsthalle Emden (2006).
Per Kirkeby lives and works in Kopenhagen, Frankfurt/Main, and Arnasco, Italy.
Per Kirkeby. Prototypen der Natur: Ausst.-Kat. Kunsthalle Emden, hg. v. A. Sommer, Ostfildern-Ruit 2006
Sondermann, V.: Zitat und Paraphrase bei Per Kirkeby von 1963 bis 1976, 2 Bde., Karlsruhe 2004
Per Kirkeby zu Gast in der Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister: Ausst.-Kat. Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister Dresden, hg. v. U. Bischoff u. E. Hipp, Dresden 2000
Per Kirkeby: Ausst.-Kat. Tate Gallery. London, hg. v. J. Lloyd, London 1998
Per Kirkeby. Bild, Zeichnung, Skulptur: Ausst.-Kat. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, hg. v. A. Zweite, Köln 1998
Per Kirkeby. Die Bronzen, Werkverzeichnis hg. v. U. Wilmes, Köln 1998
Per Kirkeby. Bilder: Ausst.-Kat. Kestner-Gesellschaft Hannover, hg. v. C. Haenlein, Hannover 1991