BRUNSWICK, Maine — The “most comprehensive display” of the work of Denmark’s Per Kirkeby in the United States to date is not as comprehensive as one might have liked. But in bringing 26 paintings and 12 bronze sculptures by Kirkeby to the Northeast, Bowdoin College Museum of Art has done fans of this intriguing artist, revered especially by painters, a great service.
Kirkeby, 74, has been a somewhat elusive figure in European painting since the 1960s. Having befriended its sickly but charismatic leader, George Maciunas, he was for a time associated with the Fluxus movement. Fluxus artists — Yoko Ono was one of them — used conceptual japes to stir up settled conventions governing the relationship between art and life.
Their provocations were ephemeral, and almost never in the form of paintings — a problem for Kirkeby, who says he told an unfazed Maciunas: “I do not really understand what [Fluxus is] all about. I don’t want to be a member because, basically, I am a painter. I am attached to material and flamboyant things.”
That attachment remained, and the Bowdoin show, which was organized by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is indeed filled with “material and flamboyant things.” The paintings in question are big — in many cases, very big — and they have a restless, unsettling aura. When so much abstract painting has descended today to a branch of décor, this in itself is bracing: Kirkeby’s paintings are not out to ingratiate themselves.
Some that appear blowsy and inchoate at first never really stop seeming so — but somehow, even this apprehension fails to smother their peculiar charge. They hold the same poignant fascination as an abandoned construction site or fire-swept forest.
Other works, however, deepen and destabilize your sense of structure and scale. Slowly they cohere in the most riveting ways.
Kirkeby’s flickering color — one minute earthy and dun, the next bejeweled, opalescent — plays strange tricks, inducing second and third glances. In paintings like “New Shadows V” and “New Shadows III,” both painted in 1996, or the earlier “Rueckblick I (Retrospect I)” (1986) one could be looking at magnified details of the late paintings of Pierre Bonnard.
But perhaps the most compelling painting in the show is “Mordet i Finderup Lade” or “Regicide at Finderup Barn,” painted way back in 1967. It grabs you by the throat, with its haunted rendering of a snow-covered barn in a landscape overlaid with silhouetted or stencil-like figures of humans, animals, birds, and buildings, and its manic barrage of scribbles, dots, and brushy infill. Reminiscent of Kirkeby’s contemporary, the German Sigmar Polke, it also anticipates the work of several stars of contemporary painting, including Neo Rauch, Albert Oehlen, Kai Althoff, and Daniel Richter.
Commentators on Kirkeby habitually stress his origins as a student of geology. The artist himself, whose astute and wide-ranging reflections have recently been collected in “Writings on Art: Per Kirkeby” (Spring Publications, 2012), has described his paintings as the outcome of “an endless process of sedimentation,” and as the display of “geological upheaval.”
Topsoil over bedrock; crust over core — the geological metaphors could play out endlessly. But Kirkeby cautions against over-simplifying: “It’s far too easy a conclusion, that I paint layer upon layer, therefore I’m a geologist,” he says in an interview published in the show’s catalog.
His work is more involved, he suggests, with a tension between two different views of geology: the view that focuses on the incessant catastrophes — earthquakes, volcanoes — that roil the earth; and the view that stresses drowsy, deep time evolution over the lightning strikes of sudden upheaval.
Kirkeby’s works mostly suggest the crisis model to me. They are redolent of labor performed in the grip of tumult and panic. “The rashest, most frivolous pictures,” he pungently wrote, “are often the thin varnish that covers the most despairing efforts.”
Getting in the spirit of things, the good folk at Bowdoin have also mounted a smaller, scientific exhibition about color and structure in the earth, organized by the college’s Earth and Oceanographic Sciences and Mathematics Department. It’s worth a look, although in its impeccable spirit of scientific disinterest, the display of rocks and crystals and aerial photographs ultimately has little to do with the drama of Kirkeby’s paintings, which fail as often as they succeed.
When they fail, it’s perhaps because, for all Kirkeby’s hypersensitivity, his touch, his formidable intelligence, they don’t rise above the idiom they adopt. That idiom — I can think of no less feeble phrase than “brushy abstraction” — derives from Kandinsky and de Kooning and before them from Delacroix.
Its foundation, necessarily, is virtuosity. When it transcends the banality of virtuosity-for-its-own-sake, it does so only by great effort and the application of a truly — magnificently — perverse intelligence.
It’s hard to know whether, in these less successful works, Kirkeby is insufficiently virtuosic or insufficiently perverse. But there is a dispiriting aspect to them: They take up so much space; they amount to so little.
More rousing are Kirkeby’s bronze sculptures. These alternate between lumpy, prehistoric forms that rise implacably and asymmetrically from their bases, and smaller, square brick-like structures that resemble freshly-laid foundations, or, alternatively, lingering ruins.
“The role of art,” Kirkeby has said, “is to accept that things break down. That’s the only way to get something new to emerge.”
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.