Interview with Florian Steininger about the exhibition Per Kirkeby

Artistic director Florian Steininger answers questions about the exhibition Per Kirkeby, which he also curated. Get some background information on the show.

When you were first planning this solo exhibition of Per Kirkeby, the artist was still alive. Now the exhibition is held in memory of the Danish artist, who died on May 9, 2018. What was your original motivation to make this exhibition in the first place?

Per Kirkeby had already left some traces in Krems. In 1993, a brick sculpture of his was installed in the garden behind the Minorite Church, and his paintings had been in different theme exhibitions such as The Gravity of Mountains in 1997 or in my 2017 opening exhibition as director, Abstract Painting Now! For me, he is one of the all-time greats with an elemental painterly attitude. Now I wanted to present a career survey exhibition of painting, sculpture, and drawing in Krems.

What was your reaction to the death of this eminent Danish artist?

I was very sad; after all, there had been hope that Kirkeby would be able to come to Krems for the exhibition opening, and I had unfortunately never met him in person before. His wife read him my letter, and Kirkeby was very happy to have an exhibition in Krems for his upcoming 80th birthday. Sadly, he then died in May.

Per Kirkeby is best known for his large-sized abstract landscapes. He often kept working on a painting for months. What are the artistic processes behind a Per Kirkeby picture, and when did he consider a painting actually completed?

Kirkeby never took the easy road. Every painting was put through a laborious process full of doubt and revising. Frequently the painter started reworking after breaks of several months, correcting, discarding. Strictly speaking, the painting went through a process of permanent transformation, as is nature itself. Kirkeby would probably make changes to one work or another even today.

Kirkeby’s works are predominantly dark. The basic atmosphere is subdued. How can we watch the exhibition without becoming melancholic?

Is there a silver lining? There always are flashes of light flaring up in the dark, almost mystical. Kirkeby is the neoromantic Nordic painter. In the course of his development, his pictures have become warmer and more intense in coloration. The slightly subdued ideally fits with the autumnal season. A little melancholic, but beautiful. In Kirkeby’s very last works on Masonite hardboard, leaves have fallen, a painterly impression of nature.

You also included a number of Per Kirkeby’s so-called “Masonite pictures” in the exhibition. What are they, and what significance do they have in Kirkeby’s oeuvre?

These are roughly square processed-wood panels. Kirkeby worked them very spontaneously, often smearing, erasing, and reworking—they look like school blackboards. They stand in contrast to his paintings where paint has sedimented over long time. They also are a link between his painting and his drawing. The large selection in the exhibition takes you on a chronological journey of Kirkeby’s oeuvre.

What is rarely known is Kirkeby’s overpaintings of pictures by others. Among others, he overpainted romantic kitschy landscapes. Is it an act of ridicule?

It may seem so at first sight. Like bad painting. Cocky, aggressive. Frequently, they are overpainted with glaring blues. But for him it was more of an occasional short-time sidestep he took from the film of his own painting, directly confronting himself with a different type of painting.

His brick sculptures are a kind of “foreign body” in Per Kirkeby's oeuvre. The Museum Jorn in Silkeborg puts the focus on them in the retrospective PER KIRKEBY: Machines for Light and Shadow (until Dec. 9, 2018). There also is a brick sculpture on view in Krems, in the sculpture garden of the Minorite Church in Stein. Where did Kirkeby get the inspiration for these works?

Yes, they appear really outlandish. But Kirkeby has an austere constructivist touch in his pictures, despite all that informal organic nature. They look like architectures, though without a function. Odd formations, twins of architecture and sculpture.

Do you have a favorite work in the exhibition?

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2000—the title motif of the exhibition—on Masonite. Despite the quickness of the pencil strokes, the piece looks incredibly deep and saturated.



credits: © Per Kirkeby Estate Courtesy Galerie Michael Werner, Märkisch Wilmersdorf, Köln / Cologne & New York Foto / Photo: Lothar Schnepf

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