To stand in front of a canvas by Danish neo-expressionist Per Kirkeby is to see nature through the eyes of an artist whose life’s work was to provide structural interpretation of the world around him.

“I am a painter who is dependent on what he sees,” Kirkeby said to Poul Erik Tøjner, art director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark. Kirkeby made the statement during an interview published in 2015 on the Louisiana Channel — the museum’s nonprofit web-TV channel featuring weekly videos on art, literature, architecture, design and music. 

“I can have a garden I can look at and pull a painting from,” said the artist. “That means sensing something about the nature in the garden. It’s not just the sight. To me, it is a kind of insight into what the meaning of life is.”

Artist Per Kirkeby looks out a window, resting his arms on the windowsill. (Courtesy: Museum Jorn)

Artist Per Kirkeby (Courtesy: Museum Jorn)

Kirkeby died May 9 in Copenhagen, Denmark, at age 79.

The natural world was a recurring theme in Kirkeby’s work. The artist possessed intense interest and deep knowledge of the subject, receiving a master’s degree in arctic geology from the University of Copenhagen in 1964.

However, he decided to forego science for a career in art. He was a poet and sculptor, but is best known for his emotive paintings that, beginning in the early 1980s, made him one of the most influential practitioners of the neo-expressionism movement. 

A work by Per Kirkeby on the ceiling of The Black Diamond in Copenhagen, a modern waterfront extension of the Royal Danish Library. (Photo: Christina Bejarano)

A work by Per Kirkeby on the ceiling of The Black Diamond in Copenhagen, a modern waterfront extension of the Royal Danish Library. (Photo: Christina Bejarano)

“My painting isn’t good until it goes under,” he explained to Tøjner.

“I mean that the original intention, the smart and clever that you always have when you start a painting … the first night I think it’s all great, intelligent and clever. The next morning, I can see that it’s not enough to make a painting.

“Paintings that are done like this, and just look pretty and grippingly coloristic, that’s not enough if there is no structure within; a solid skeleton. I cannot start by making this structure. The right structure slowly emerges from the picture.”

His death was announced by Michael Werner Gallery, which has represented the artist since 1974.

Kirkeby’s works are displayed in collections worldwide, including the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, London’s Tate Gallery and The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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