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Per Kirkeby’s Triumph of Form Over Substance

To study Per Kirkeby’s Untitled (1983) for any length of time feels a bit like waiting for your eyes to adjust in a dark room. The large canvas is covered in dark paint, out of which emerge indistinct shapes that slip back out of sight whenever you try to define them. One vertical column, the colour of sodden earth, could be the figure of a man, or the trunk of a tree; a dimly lit central section, tinged with green, could be a view to a landscape; the grey-white paint on the right-hand side seems to hang in the foreground like a fog. The longer you cast about for concrete forms, the more you notice the only one actually in front of you – the changing, teasing surface of the paint itself, glossy and smooth in parts, dry, scumbled or thinned down to wash in others.

The critic Peter Schjeldahl has dubbed this the Kirkeby Effect, ‘a lower, inchoate, darker contemplation’ of an art that demands your attention while offering no resolution. His eponymous essay of 1986 now serves as the catalogue introduction to an exhibition at Michael Werner Gallery in London, of Kirkeby’s paintings and sculptures from that decade. This was the period during which the Danish-born artist emerged as a painter of stature, having fallen in with Werner’s circle in the late 1970s after a period experimenting with performance art. In 1981, he showed alongside Baselitz, A.R. Penck, Markus Lüpertz and others at the Royal Academy’s seminal ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ exhibition, where a young Nicholas Serota spotted his work and offered him a show at the Whitechapel; a retrospective at Tate Modern followed in 2009...

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