About Per Kirkeby

Per Kirkeby in his house in De Bezzo, Ilaly. Photo: Mari Anne Duus Jørgensen

Per Kirkeby (1938-2018)


Per Kirkeby is born September 1st in Copenhagen as the oldest son to engineer Alfred Kirkeby Christensen and Lucy Helga Alice Nisbeth Bertelsen. Kirkeby grows up on Bispebjerg and in Husum. Already in middle schools he goes out into nature to draw and sketch. In high school at Vestre Borgerdyd he cultivates an interest for literature while also continuing his interest in the arts.

In spite of this, Kirkeby initially choses a more secure way of life, and in 1957 he starts studying nature history at Copenhagen University. His discovery of the natural sciences with its field observations, principles of order, and constructions of hypotheses is very influential to his artistic work - especially the way he builds up a picture and processes it. During his studies he works as a geological assistant and participates in 1958, 1959 and 1960 in research expeditions to Greenland. With him always is his field book, where he very carefully writes down his observations. In 1961 he has his first woodcarving printed in the journal “Hvedekorn”, titled The Fjord of Eternity - Greenland.

At the same time as his studies, Kirkeby is active as an artist. In the spring of 1962 he seeks out the newly started experimental art school in Copenhagen, the Ex-school, founded by Poul Gernes and Troels Andersen. At the Ex-school, Kirkeby works with experimental graphics, collage painting, 8 mm film, environments and happenings. In 1963, the school’s influence is directly traceable in his work, when he at Gallery Gammel Strand, alongside John Davidsen, Peter Louis Jensen, and others, shows a communal piece in the shape of a large environment with burned furniture, balled up newspaper and a large collage wall. Kirkeby is also involved from the very beginning when the Ex-school in 1962 experiments with a new genre called ”painterhappenings”. From 1963 Kirkeby’s abstract, landscape-paintings change character. Inspired by pop art, he starts printing and depicting pictures from newspapers and magazines, and thereby quickly creates a new language of shapes. This can be seen, among others, in the piece Part of Handcart no. 13.

Kirkeby participates in the second Pearyland-expedition in 1963 under management of archeologist, writer, and artist, Eigil Knuth, who he forms a lifelong friendship with. Eigil Knuth managed to unite his research with his artistic interest and interpretation of the cultures he came into contact with. The following year, Kirkeby finishes his education with his thesis on arctic quarternary geology. That summer he participates in a meteorite-expedition to the Melville Bay in Greenland – this is his last trip as a scientific employee. Hereinafter he goes all in on his career as an artist.

From 1965 Kirkeby’s career seriously takes off. He gets his first separate exhibit with 34 paintings at Den Frie in Copenhagen, and also his first international show: The group exhibit Tretton från Danmark in Stockholm. He debuts as a lyricist with his poetry collection Litt in connection with a separate exhibit in Morsø Art Union, as well as the small, experimental book, Blå. Hereinafter, literature has a permanent place in Kirkeby’s artistic production. As one of the first he receives the newly created State Art Foundation’s three-year work-scolarship. He marries teacher Jonna Elisabet Therkelsen.

Next to the painting and the graphics, Kirkeby evolves in 1966 an architectonic figure: He puts bricks on top of each other and creates simple cubes. The first bricksculpture is shown in 1966 in Holbergsgade in Copenhagen, along with Stakit - a blue picket fence encircling 1 m x 1 m. Kirkeby’s artistic work in these years are characterized by many different types of pictures and art genres, that overlaps each other. In 1966 he performs happenings at the Ex-school festival for happenings, alongside Joseph Beuys, Bjørn Nørgaard, and Henning Christiansen, among others. In winther 1966/67 he travels to New York and meets Fluxus-main figure, George Maciunas, who brings Kirkeby into the Fluxus-network. In the following years comes a long row of happenings with Nam June Paik and Jörg Immendorrf, among others.

Kirkeby publishes his first novel 2.15 through Borgen’s Publisher, which in the future becomes his main publisher. He steps into the editorial work of the magazine Hvedekorn, which he continues until 1970. The daughter, Rebecca Kirkeby, is born in 1967. In 1968, Kirkeby performs the last part of the performance series Arctic, inspired by the geological landscape with elements of nature's degradation processes. In the same year he publishes the essay collection Picture Explanations, where he critically discusses the American minimalism that has been introduced in Denmark a few years before.


The State Art Foundation allocates Kirkeby a decoration at the Assembly House in Egedesminde, Greenland, which he completes in the summer of 1969. In connection with his stay, he makes recordings for the Greenlandic film II. In 1970, Kirkeby participates in the exhibition Tabernacle, which triggers a number of scandals, on Louisiana. The same year he has an exhibition with the associations, the Decembrists, at Den Frie, Copenhagen, where he is a member until 1977. In the following years, Kirkeby is involved in the ABCinema film group and participates in several experimental film projects: Together with Jørgen Leth, he makes the movie Dyrehaven - the romantic forest and participates in several collective film productions – among others, Kirkeby prepares a section of the film anthology Frændeløs.

In 1971 Kirkeby travels to Mexico alongside author Ib Michael and photographer Teit Jørgensen. They visit Mayan cities in the jungle and explore the Mayan culture. In the jungle a new form of architecture reveals itself: the ruin – surrounded by tropical flora and mountains. The trip to Central America gives Kirkeby’s art an archeological and botanical dimension, as is seen in the piece The Chalk Board in his exhibition at Tranegården in Hellerup. The boards consist of several layers of chalk-drawings, some visible, others already wiped out but not entirely gone. Here Kirkeby works with creation- and decomposition-processes as a sort of “aesthetic trace of memory”. In developing the boards Kirkeby entirely separates himself from the Ex-school environment. He has matured as an artist and has no longer aesthetic or ideological need for collectivity as a political or social manifestation.

In 1973 in Ikast, Kirkebys very first bricksculpture is inaugurated into the public space, with clear references to architectonic fragments such as pillars, gates and gables. In the same year Kirkeby receives a 3-year scholarship from the State Art Foundation for his work as a writer. In the summer of 1974 he travels with Troels Kløvedahl on board of Nordkaperen to the Middle Sea, and in September he opens his first separate exhibition at Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne. In 1974 Kirkeby exhibits a new genre – “museum-environment” – at Haderslev Art Museum, with a mix of the museum’s own things and Kirkeby’s pieces. Kirkeby still makes films and works with Poul Gernes in 1975 on a manuscript for the film Normannerne about the age of Vikings. In 1975 Kirkeby has a retrospective exhibition involving works on paper in the engraving-collection at the State Museum of Art and at Henie Onstad Art Center in Høvikodden, Norway. In the same year Museum Jorn in Silkeborg starts collecting a copy of each of Kirkeby’s etchings. In 1975 Kirkeby furthermore starts working with “overcoatings”.

1976 - 77
Kirkeby’s fascination with architecture and spaces can be seen in both his sculptures and his paintings. In 1976 he participates in the Venice Biennale with gable motives inspired by temple-gables. Kirkeby doesn’t just explore the concept of sculpture in his bricksculptures; alongside Poul Gernes he sends a submission to an architecture contest deciding how to build an expansion at Holstebro Art Museum and the year after he submits a proposal to a similar contest concerning the administrationbuilding of Randers City. In 1976, Kirkeby is commissioned to prepare a portrait-film about Asger Jorn, which is produced in 1977. In 1976 Kirkeby travels to Iceland and resumes his work with etchings after a ten-year break. He experiments with printing-techniques and reuse of printing plates, where the printing plates are edited op to ten or twelve times. He is divorced from ELisabeht Therkelsen and now lives with the Danish filmproducer, Vibeke Windeløv, who participated in Kirkeby and Gerne’s film the year before. In 1977 Kirkeby has a big solo exhibition at Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, containing paintings, bricksculptures and books.

In 1978 Kirkeby is announced as professor of the Art Academy in Karlsruhe – a professorship he possesses until 1988. In the same year he has two separate exhibitions in Germany: a larger exhibition at Kunstraum in Munich and an exhibition containing new paintings at Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne. From 1978 and forward on, Kirkeby regularly has exhibitions in the gallery, and Michael Werner’s connections in German and European art-life supplies Kirkeby with new opportunities. Kirkeby publishes his essay collection Naturens blyant [Nature’s pencil], which contains his central views on art and the world. In 1979 follows a retrospective and important exhibition in Kunsthalle Bern and in the same year he marries Vibeke Windeløv and their son, Sophus, is born. Per Kirkeby start working with printer Niels Borch Jensen, who has just opened a workshop in Copenhagen in 1979, and Borch Jensen, from then on, becomes Kirkebys regular printer.

In 1980 Kirkeby buys a house on Læsø. His interest in the island began when he made his short-film about Asger Jorn, who also had a house there. On Læsø, Kirkeby produces many of his larger formats and Læsø becomes one of his regular places from then on. Both in summer and winter he stays there for long periods of time. Per Kirkeby’s international career really takes off in these years. In 1980 he represents Denmark in the Venice Biennale (alongside Bjørn Nørgaard) with a series of large paintings. Afterwards follows a solo exhibition at Galerie Fred Jahn in Munich. In the same year he travels to Greenland with photographer Teit Jørgensen and shoots the film Geology – Is it really a science . Furthermore, Kirkeby works with cobber-prints with Borch Jensen in Copenhagen and publishes the poetry collection Isolation of the parts as well as the first volume of a series of books with drawings through Brøndum’s Publisher.

In 1981 Kirkeby makes his first bronzesculptures, which becomes an important form of expression for him in the years to follow. He still works continuously with a wide range of medias and materials, i.e. Kirkeby finishes two decoration assignments with large oilpaintings for the city court in Copenhagen as well as for Westhimmerland high school. In the same year he participates in the exhibition A New Spirit In Painting at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and in the following years he has larger solo exhibitions at Ordrupgaard, Himmerland Art Museum, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Paris, and Berlin, among others. In 1982 Kirkeby participates in Dokumenta7 in Kassel with a large roomsculpture in red bricks. The sculpture is left standing in the following years as a gift from Kirkeby, but is torn down in 1986 in spite of protests and much debate. In 1982 Kirkeby becomes a member of the Danish Academy of Litterature, in Copenhagen, and in 1983 he is propositioned the Eckersberg Medal, which he declines. In the same year the son, Absalon, is born.

In the exhibition Uit het Norden at Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in 1984, Kirkebys paintings are compared to those of Edvard Munch and Asger Jorn. Kirkeby is interpreted as a Nordic expressionist. His expressive paintings in large formats from this period are characterized by a unification of lyrical, poetic nature-considerations and coloristic experiments. Occasionally, fragments from earlier paintings reoccur as glimpses of memory. This is seen as in line with Nordic tradition, from Edvard Munch and Strindberg to Asger Jorn. In the same year Kirkeby creates the scenography for Strindberg’s play In Rome which is performed in Venice in connection with the 41st Biennale.
In 1984 the Kirkeby family moves to a house on Øregård’s Allé in Hellerup, and Kirkeby constructs a studio house expansion. In the same year he exhibits a bronzesculpture for the first time at Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne. Throughout the 1980s, Kirkeby has a series of separate and retrospective exhibitions in Europe and has determinedly established his place in the European art world. In 1984 he furthermore participates in the exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture at Museum of Modern Art in New York. Thereafter follows a series of essay collections, such as Naturhistorier [Nature stories], which is another important source for Kirkeby’s own thoughts on his own art as well as others’, and Udviklingen [The Evolution] from 1985, which evolves around the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. The same year Kirkeby makes his first etchings in large format at printer Borch Jensen in Copenhagen.

During the 1980s Kirkeby creates a series of bricksculptures i Norway, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and Denmark, among other places. The bricksculptures are functionless pieces of architecture, where the stones’ materiality is united with a classical strictness and modern abstraction. An example of Kirkeby’s brick- and bonzesculpture is the decoration of Gentofte municipality’s main library from 1987. In the same year Kirkeby makes two further bricksculptures for Skulptur:Projekte in Munich. Kirkeby begins, from 1987 and forward, to work with printer Michael Schäfer and gallerist Sabine Knust in Munich. He receives the Thorvaldsen Medal the same year. In 1988 his book about Edvard Weie is published. This is the first release in Bløndal’s art series. Up through the 1990s Kirkeby publishes a series of books through the same publisher, in both Danish and English, concerning impactful, international artists. In 1989 Per Kirkeby is appointed professor at Staatliche Hochschule für Bildene Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, a position he possesses until 2000. In 1990 Kirkeby buys a house in Di Bezzo in Northern Italy.

Besides his large production of paintings Per Kirkeby works with graphic. In 1994 Feltbogen [The Field Book] is published, containing more than 80 etchings, inspired by Kirkeby’s geological field book sketches. In 1992 Kirkeby designs a stamp for the Danish Postal service, and also creates chapter pictures for Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves in 1996. In the same year Kirkeby is commissioned to design the costumes and scenography for the ballet Swan Lake in Peter Martin’s production at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen. This production is reproduced in 1999 by New York City Ballet. Kirkeby later designs costumes for another one of Peter Martin’s ballets in New York that is Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet 2007. In 1997 Per Kirkeby receives the Order of Dannebrog. From 1997 Kirkeby designs and realizes a new Westhimmerland Art Museum in Aars alongside Jens Bertelsen. Many of Kirkeby’s pieces is to be found in the town of Aars, at Westhimmerland high school and at Kimbretorvet, among other places, and in 1999 Kirkeby is declared honorary citizen of the town. From 1999 and in the following years Kirkeby receives a number of prominent decoration commissions, among others the 200 m2 ceiling painting at the Royal Library’s bridge in 1999 and eight large bronzesculptures for Bundesratsgegebäude in Berlin in 2000.

In 2000 Kirkeby travels to the Faroe Islands for the first time, after invitation from the local printmakers. The results is a series of graphic pieces in cobber print, stone print, woodcarving, and monotype – most of these in colours and all published in a book from Brøndum’s Publisher. In autumn of 2000 Kirkeby is struck by a small stroke and he recovers in his house in De Bezzo in Northern Italy. In 2001 Kirkeby continues his work, in spite of reduced vision in his left side. In 2001 Kirkeby creates a gigantic ceilingpainting for Aarhus University and in 2004 he creates a wall- and ceilingpainting for the Geological Museum and bronze reliefs for the Opera in Copenhagen. In the same year Kirkeby travels to Greenland as part of an expedition with geologist Minik Rossing and the Danish crown prince, Frederik. A short time after, his poetry collection The Arctic Desert is published. In 2009 publishing begins of the artbook series Fieldbook 1-5, which is inspired from Kirkeby’s early, original collagebooks as well as his records from the many research expeditions to Greenland during the 1960s. Per Kirkeby and Vibeke Windeløv divorce in 2002, and in 2005 he marries Mari Anne Duus Jørgensen. During the ‘00s Kirkeby has great, international exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London and Shanghai Zendai, Museum of Modern Art in China, among others.

In 2011 Kirkeby participates in another Greenland-expedition lead by geologist Minik Rossing. This time the expedition travels by wood-schooner Activ to the island Ella in Eastern Greenland. In the same year Kirkeby receives the artist award from the Royal Academy of Arts in London. In the following years there is a series of international separate exhibitions in Kassel, Bruxelles, Washington, Brunswick, and Munich, among others. Kirkeby publishes his autobiography, Grønlandstekster [Greenland texts] in 2013. In 2015, film director Anne Regitze Wivel publishes the documentary Man Falling about Per Kirkeby’s struggle with the consequences of a brain injury that he sustained from a fall on the stairs in his house in Hellerup. In 2015 Kirkeby quits painting, but still works with graphics and sketching. In 2015 Museum Jorn shows a gigantic, retrospective exhibition, containing all of Kirkeby’s etchings under the exhibition title Museum Kirkeby.

Per Kirkeby lives and works in Hellerup, Copenhagen.

The Per Kirkeby Archive is transferred to Museum Jorn.
Per Kirkeby dies in his home in Hellerup on the 9th of May, 2018.

I don’t seek to make a post card landscape in nice edition with the most significant rockformations. It is in fact the smaller things that catch my attention. It is also a search. I try to see something in the landscape that I am observing. And I do it directly with the etching needle in hand. What I’m looking for even I don’t know.

(Per Kirkeby, the Faroe Islands, 2000)


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