Kirkeby: Beyond Classifcation

(Photo: Tate © The artist)

Robert Storr, dean of the School of Art at Yale and commissioner of the 2007 Venice Biennale, has written about the Per Kirkeby exhibit at the Tate Modern. The first paragraph of Storr’s commentary is actually one of the most succinct and accurate descriptions I’ve read of the current “exercises in anachronistic classification” that bedevil the art world today.

I’m also including the second paragraph as well where Storr states his point that Kirkeby does not fit any of the current buckets as they are now constituted, even though Kirkeby was “a polymath in tune with his times, which is to say a well-educated man and an improviser all at once.”

This is a well deserved focus on a major (and under-appreciated) artist and worth the complete read. (Note: Another excellent review of the show by Laura Cumming from the Guardian can be read on Slow Painting.)

A good deal of the art history being written today isn’t art history at all. Rather, it consists of exercises in anachronistic classification in which artists are assigned tags and lined up in groups according to ideological and stylistic genealogies. The rubric of Conceptualism,for example, becomes the catch-all basket for a disparate array of aesthetic practices, notably textual art, appropriated and manipulated photos, the hard core performance art, video, installation art, readymade sculpture and allied subgenres. When it comes to identifying the antithesis – if not nemesis – of Conceptualism for those who deem it the only true path for progressive postmodernists, the usual suspect is painting. It would appear equally obvious to such pro-pomos that painters have nothing much to do with Conceptualism, although licences to paint are issued to, among others, artists such as Art & Language, John Baldessari and Gerhard Richter, that one-man undoer of all dogmas.

Still, the art historical record seldom reflects many of the more intriguing anomalies buried with current customs of classification. Take the case of Per Kirkeby, and, for contrariness sake, begin at the beginning of this Danish artist’s long career with a group of works that are usually ignored, and a few pertinent facts that are habitually glossed over when his name comes up. The paintings, few in number, are square mixed-media works on masonite dating from 1968 and 1969. Kirkeby was just entering his thirties at the time, having abandoned the university study of natural history he began in 1957 to enter the Experimental Art School in Copenhagen in 1962, a year after it was opened as an alternative to the Royal Academy. Already behind him was intensive work as an academic and field geologist – as Lasse B Antonsen writes in one of the best synoptic accounts of his early career, Kirkeby took part in two expeditions to Greenland in 1958 and 1962. Ahead of him at the Experimental School were life-altering encounters with recent and current vanguard art, notably that of the paintings of Wols, the drawings and poems of Henri Michaux, the music of John Cage, the multi-media events of Fluxus and the art and mentorship of Joseph Beuys (who Kirkeby first met when both showed up a day early for one of Beuys’s actions at the Royal Academy). In short, Kirkeby was a polymath in tune with his times, which is to say a well-educated man and an improviser all at once.

%d bloggers like this: