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Composition is a large abstract oil painting made up of swathes of sombre colours that have been layered over the canvas in an expressive manner. Dark greys swirl around the edges of the work, while a large area of pale grey occupies the centre alongside patches of green, white and peach, which complement areas of mustard yellow and umber in the bottom centre. The paint has been applied in a loose, gestural way and its surface has a coarse, fractured appearance that is heightened by the thinness of the paint layers.
This work was produced by the Danish artist Per Kirkeby in 1978, one year after he began to work with oil paint, his work until that point having predominantly consisted of mixed media on masonite boards. Like Kirkeby’s other works in oil, Composition was created by building up many layers of paint. This is an extremely time-consuming process and finishing these works can take him up to one year. Art historian Siegfried Gohr has observed that when making oil paintings, Kirkeby has often used a palette knife to add and remove paint, resulting in a ‘brittle, apparently laborious paint application, scratched, incised, engraved like an oversized etching plate’ (Siegfried Gohr, On Per Kirkeby, Berlin 2008, p.28) and this appears to be the case with Composition. Gohr also notes that combined with the large amount of time that Kirkeby spends on these paintings, which is evident in their many visible layers, their heavily scratched surfaces serve to emphasise ‘the physical act of painting’ (Gohr 2008, p.28).
The title of this work, Composition, could be taken as a reference to the artist’s efforts in composing it, or simply as a straightforward description of the resulting object. It therefore seems designed to discourage the viewer from finding any subject matter in the work beyond its nature as a composed painting. However, Kirkeby’s title might also lead viewers to consider this work within the broader history of modern abstraction, since the word ‘composition’ is very common in the titles of major abstract works from the twentieth century, including paintings by Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935), Franz Marc (1880–1916) and Piet Mondrian (1872–1944). The artist has often insisted on the abstract nature of his works and has refused to explain them in terms of broader themes, stating that ‘I am a painter and I have painted a painting. And I really don’t want to say anything more about it. A picture is not decided by title or explanations – one has to put up with having to “look” at it’ (quoted in Tate Modern 2009, p.13).
Despite the artist’s frequent insistence on the abstract nature of his canvases, critics have often connected works like Composition with natural themes and especially geology, which Kirkeby studied in the 1950s and 1960s before starting his artistic training. For instance, the curator Klaus Ottmann has described the layers in Kirkeby’s paintings as ‘geological strata’ (quoted in Philips Collection 2012, p.1) and curator Jill Lloyd has argued that his works are informed by memories of the landscape in Greenland, which he visited on field trips while a geology student (Tate Gallery 1997, pp.10–12). Kirkeby’s reaction to these suggestions has been ambivalent. In a 2012 interview he said ‘I wouldn’t emphasise geology too much … I maintain that my paintings are not landscapes. They do not even have a landscape feeling. They are constructed’ (Kirkeby in Philips Collection 2012, pp.29, 37). However, in one of his essays Kirkeby uses the geological term ‘sedimentation’ to describe his practice of layering paint and acknowledges that this process can be seen as a visual ‘metaphor’ for geological phenomena (Per Kirkeby and Asger Schnack (ed.), Writings on Art, trans. by Martin Aitken, Putnam 2012, p.76).
Kirkeby has stated that many of his works from this period were motivated by an interest in differences in the way that colour is experienced in painting and in nature. In 1978, the same year that he made Composition, Kirkeby wrote that ‘The colors in nature are in constant flow’, but painters ‘try to make our colors stable’, ‘to halt the stream … [or] interrupt the moment’ (Kirkeby and Schnack 2012, p.28). This contrast appears to be present in Composition, in which Kirkeby’s extremely dry-looking paint gives the impression of a substance that has hardened onto the canvas, but the work also produces a sense of movement and duration in the loose quality of its gestural paint and the way that the different layers of colour break through each other, revealing earlier parts of the painting process.
Per Kirkeby, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997.
Per Kirkeby, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2009.
Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. 2012.
Supported by Christie’s.