Through December 22, 2017, the glazed courtyard of the Palais des Études at the Beaux-Arts de Paris is hosting an ensemble of brick sculptures by Danish artist Per Kirkeby (born 1938). Curated by Jill Silverman van Coenegrachts and Thierry Leviez, this is the first show to be wholly dedicated to this part of his work. If less well known than the paintings, these pieces are just as an integral to his practice: the first pieces were made in the mid-1960s.Their scale is often monumental. Also in Paris, Cahiers d’Art are exhibiting an ensemble of paintings and a few sculptures through January 20, 2018 Per Kirkeby: “The metaphysical strata underpinning my works include architectonic principles and structures that are clearly, almost literally apparent in my brick sculptures. But they are also present in my paintings. That is probably why I have felt the need to make sculptures all these years, often when no one else wanted them. They’ve been very awkward.”(1) I have always been fascinated by this overt fissure, this fault-line dividing Per Kirkeby’s work into two seemingly contradictory territories. On one side, there are the paintings, almost-abstract, landscape-like compositions held in equilibrium just this side of collapse, vertical sections in the artist’s
memories of the cliffs of Greenland, which he has visited several times on expeditions. For Kirkeby, the act of seeing remains the foundation. Indeed, it is almost a discipline in its own right, and what is called “painting” is to him a kind of “decoder” of the real. His all-over paintings emerge from a primordial, formless magma, which the artist goes about shaping by alternately deliberate and fortuitous actions.This is a long process, during which he must constantly fight against his own virtuosity and those deceptive “good ideas” that come late at night, and in the course of which successive coverings work to reveal a kind of geology of the painting, and thus to bring out a structure that was at first merely glimpsed.
On the other side are the brick sculptures. Their clear-cut forms and architectural solidity stand in sharp contrast to the pictures. The first brick piece was made in 1966, about the same time as the artist’s first paintings, which show him developing his own brand of European Pop Art. Created by piling up bricks, without mortar, this inaugural work was no doubt indebted to American Minimalism, but also, to some extent, to Arte Povera. Gradually, Kirkeby’s sculpture gained in magnitude, becoming monumental in the early 1980s, and also going from closed to open, with works that viewers can enter and walk around. At the same time, the sculptures have moved beyond the what-you-seeis-what-you-see of Minimalism to open up historical and oneiric associations. The artist has thought hard about this dichotomy, which could in some respects be viewed as a form of schizophrenia, in his reflection on the pure and the impure. The sculptures, it seems, belong more to the world of ideas: Kirkeby draws the idea on paper and delegates the actual making to masons, whereas the paintings come more directly from the realm of the unconscious. And yet, implicit in both types of work is the same kind of secret structure, even if it is more immediately present in the sculpture and “delayed” in the painting. As he remarks, “The brick blocks are the structure of my paintings, their inner scaffolding, their skeleton.”(2) “The work that is both there and not there. That you don’t need to move round because you can’t go inside it. That looks massive and yet is transparent. That looks like a building but that is not one, that is not an enlarged sculpture, and that does not waver between the two, either. It is totally what it is and does not ask these questions. But other questions, yes, perhaps. About the bit of sky that is glimpsed. About the durability of the walls, the precariousness of the houses. About human wisdom, free of intellectual burdens. About the fact of playing hide and seek and having a wall you can kick a ball against.”(3) Two architectural sources in particular inform Kirkeby’s sculptural practice. The artist grew up in the shadow of Copenhagen’s Grundtvig church (1921), an imposing brick structure whose façade looks like a giant organ. Kirkeby also talks about the general influence of the built environment in the suburbs of Copenhagen, about all those very simple houses scattered through the Danish landscape. He also confesses to a certain tenderness for those brick structures that house electric transformers, which at first glance seem bereft of qualities, but in which he values a kind of architectural modesty.
Labyrinthe (2017) is a work that you almost bump into when entering the Palais des Études. Its imposing high walls are open to the sky, and can be entered by two passages, one at each end. A bit like certain installations by Bruce Nauman, we have the impression that we have come back to the start, when in fact we have arrived elsewhere. Or vice versa. Being in this work produces a funny old feeling. First of all, there is a sense of security, of benevolence, of warmth, due in part to the nature of the brick, but also to the profound harmony that comes from the alternation between angles and welcoming apsidal forms—a feeling that I recall once having in certain churches in Ravenna. Oscillating between sculpture and architecture, Labyrinthe is a kind of haven that insulates us from the noise of the world, a silent meditation
chamber. Gradually, however, this initial sensation is slightly undermined by a number of architectonic details. Narrow loopholes, descendants of Barnett Newman’s zips, bleed the walls, but they do not divide up the space at a regular rhythm. And eventually you perceive tiny differences in the organization of the volumes. From the first floor of the Palais, looking down on the work, we understand that a subtly thwarted symmetry has presided over the plans for this Laby
rinthe, and that our initial impression of peace is somewhat troubled by what the artist calls an “asymmetric disquiet.” Here we find the halftones and frozen imbalances that inform Kirkeby’s paintings.
CIRCLE AND SQUARE
“In Toulouse, I was living in a small hotel just next to the big Romanesque church, Saint-Sernin. Morning and night, I would look up at the big bell tower rising above the transept. One morning, when a familiar fog was lying over the city, with that clarity that leaves the bell tower distinctly visible but obliterating the background, layer by layer, I suddenly saw it. I saw that one form engenders another.”(4) This memory from Toulouse has an epiphanic quality. Kirkeby observed how, by means of very subtle architectonic links, round forms gradually engendered a square in the visual progression up the bell tower. It is no surprise that an artist trying to resolve the conflict between purity and impurity should be interested in the problem of how to square the circle. Laid out in a sequence, Grenoble I, II and III (1991–92) are sculptures that extend at floor level. They were created for an exhibition at Le Magasin in Grenoble in the early 1990s. Here, circle and square dialogue merrily, bringing about structures that are pyramidal, whether inverted or otherwise. By their height, they bring to mind the rims of wells. True, at their center we see the floor of the Palais des Études, but our imagination is drawn in and goes deep. One thinks of the introduction to the Little History of the
World, in which Ernst Gombrich uses the metaphor of the well in which one drops a lighted piece of paper that illuminates the sides as it slowly descends to evoke the work of the historian. These three pieces do, indeed, take us deep into history. Archeological excavations come to mind, the ruins of a Paleo-Christian baptistery or a Mayan pyramid. And also, if more remotely, Babylonian ziggurats. Made of organic matter, earth, the brick is found in all civilizations. It is a concentrate of geology reconditioned by man, a kind of “constructed” nature. Kirkeby’s sculptures thus contain a kind of ancestral wisdom of construction, of the shelter. And if the artist is so attached to the Neo-Gothic style of the church at Grundtvig, that is because this revisiting of the Middle Ages, this new reading of a glorious past, marks both a pause and a synthesis, a threshold between a history going back several thousand years and what he calls the “crystals” of modern architecture. Thresholds and passages are notions that come to mind often when experiencing Kirkeby’s sculptures.
“The ‘landscape’ is buried figures. Like in a still life: pots, glasses and anxious old cheeses [ sic]. The figures are twisted into pornographic positions, like an Italian cartoon. The tomb is just a cover, a coming to terms with impotence. For all their beauty, artistic monuments—often carved in the form of a tree—send a shiver through the viewer. We ‘landscape painters’ stand there, with our brush and spatula, like stonecutters in a cemetery.”(5) The Stèles (1966–2016) are particularly moving in this respect. Each with a unique combination of salient and receding parts, crosses inverted and otherwise, symmetrically and asymmetrically enlivening their brick “body,” they stand like tombs. Or petrified humans.Their presence is powerful and silent and yet still kindly. They speak to us of a timeless humanity. At once the men who came before us and those who will come after us, men who will also live in brick houses, whose children will play hide and seek or kick footballs against walls. When you think about it, there are not many works of art that evoke such universal notions, and that do so simply, with such a basic form of sculpture. Kirkeby’s true material, in fact, is not brick, or even paint: it is time. His works embrace us, or they amicably address our fragile humanity. This calls for a certain humility. We must realize that we are merely one little brick among many others, part of a bigger edifice. These sculptures do not proudly keep us at a distance, as so many current artworks do. But then Kirkeby does not make contemporary art. He makes art, period. As we well know, time devours all things. These sculptures which are monuments contain within themselves the promise of their own destruction. All things must pass, whether sooner or later. Men, stones, trees and of course bricks. Everything goes back to geology, crumbles into dust, is compacted into dense strata, which may one day in the future be revealed by another painter. In the garden of his house on the island of Laeso, Kirkeby’s sculptures are gradually eroding under the onslaught of the Nordic climate and passing time. “The great process of erosion that even humanity in all its history will never have the chance to witness—the complete erosion of a mountain chain the size of the Alps—becomes visible thanks to constructed nature. The evolution of a building when it is ruined is no doubt where the geological idea of destruction originated. Architecture contains not only natural history but also, as we have known ever since school, history and personal biography. Because that is where we live.” (6)
Richard Leydier is a curator and critic based in Paris. (1) Per Kirkeby, Manuel, Éditions Paris Musées, 1998, p. 43. (2) Ibid. p. 43. (3) Ibid. p. 51. (4) Ibid. p. 23. (5) Ibid. p. 167 (6) Ibid. p. 8. Per Kirkeby Né en / born 1938 à / in Copenhague Vit et travaille à / lives and works in Copenhague, Laeso, et / and Arnasco Expositions personnelles / solo shows (sélection) : 2015 Galerie Forsblom, Helinski ; Musée des beaux-arts, Caen ; The Gallery at Windsor, Vero Beach, Floride 2016 Michael Werner Gallery, Londres Galerie Sabine Knust, Munich 2017 Franz Marc Museum, Kochel am See Setareh Gallery, Düsseldorf ; Cahiers d’Art, Paris (21 octobre 2017 - 20 janvier 2018) Beaux-Arts, Paris (20 octobre - 22 décembre 2017)