Per Kirkeby (Danish, born 1938)
Oil on canvas; 79 x 67 in. (200.7 x 170.2 cm)
Purchase, Harriett Ames Charitable Trust Gift, in memory of Lita Annenberg Hazen, 1996 (1996.350)
Kirkeby has worked in a variety of media, including painting and sculpture, documentary film, and artist's books, and has also written poetry, art criticism, and travel essays. Although he knew at an early age that he wanted to be an artist, he first studied geology at the University of Copenhagen, graduating in 1964. He participated in geological fieldwork in Greenland on numerous occasions between 1958 and 1962, studying rock formations in the morning and sketching them during his free time in the afternoon.
In 1962, Kirkeby enrolled in the Experimental Art School in Copenhagen and began to exhibit his art in 1964. He was a member of the Fluxus group, a loosely organized, international group of avant-garde artists who worked in a wide range of media in the 1960s and '70s, emphasizing improvisation, everyday experience, and audience involvement. He was also influenced by other major artistic movements of those decades, including Pop Art, Performance Art, and Minimalism.
Kirkeby is most recognized for his large, painterly abstractions, which are often based on the Scandinavian landscape. Mysuseter, the title of this painting, refers to a village located in the Rondane region of Norway, where the landscape contains imposing mountain peaks, idyllic lakes, and densely wooded plains. His work has been compared to the Neo-Expressionist painting of such German artists as Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, due to its vigorous brushwork and emotive use of color. He has also been called an heir to the Northern Romantic tradition of the nineteenth century; like Casper David Friedrich, his landscapes convey a sense of human insignificance in the face of nature's sublime powers.
However, the most crucial source for Kirkeby's painting may be his study of geology. The painted surface of Mysuseter is built up in layers, similar to the earth's processes of formation, and its formal arrangement strikes a balance between chaos and order. Although the imagery is abstract, forms resembling mountain peaks and water seem to emerge from its topography, and passages of orange and violet evoke sunrises and twilight. Perhaps the earthy materiality of the paint and the physical experience of this painting's terrain could only have come from someone who has delved into the composition of the earth itself.