Per Kirkeby

Copenhagen I


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Not on display

Per Kirkeby 1938–2018
Object: 600 × 360 × 360 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the New Carlsberg Foundation 2017


Copenhagen I 1965–6 is a small square tower of standard-size yellow bricks, resting directly on the floor. The stack is ten bricks tall by one-and-a-half wide, constructed following the standard bricklaying pattern known as ‘running bond’, but without mortar. This work and Copenhagen II 1965–6 (Tate T14918) were Kirkeby’s first sculptures using bricks, exhibited together in 1965 as a temporary installation in Copenhagen’s Holbergsgade, a basement gallery which showed artists associated with Copenhagen’s Experimental Art School. They were destroyed after the exhibition and new versions are reconstructed every time they are installed, using standard yellow bricks. A second version of Copenhagen I is in a private collection in Sweden.

Yellow bricks are traditionally used in the artist’s native Denmark for cheap and simple, utilitarian construction jobs, as opposed to the red bricks used in more decorative projects and monumental buildings, such as churches and city halls. Kirkeby went on to use red bricks for the first time in 1966, in the installation House. Fence. Brick, which includes a stack of bricks similar in form to Copenhagen I, though slightly taller. He also employed red bricks in sculptures such as Stele (Læsø III), Stele (Læsø IV) and Stele (Læsø V), all 1984 (Tate T14914T14916), pillar-like sculptures made out of Danish standard-size red bricks. These were originally built to mark the boundaries of an area of dense vegetation in the garden of his house and studio on the island of Læsø, Denmark

By 1965 Kirkeby was aware of American minimalism, including the work of Carl Andre (born 1935), which was then receiving exposure in Europe. Before he knew of Andre’s brick sculptures Equivalents IVIII 1966 (see Equivalent VIII 1966 [Tate T01534]), Kirkeby had already begun working with bricks as a way of experimenting with minimalist ideas such as simple, modular forms and industrial materials used in a literal sense. For Kirkeby, however, the use of bricks in his sculptures was intended to suggest pictorial and narrative elements, things he felt were more familiar to his sensibility than minimalism’s purist approach to materials and their spatial presence. The ‘running bond’ layout adopted in Copenhagen I was both a way to arrange the bricks in an ornamental pattern and to link them obviously to functional architecture.

Kirkeby was drawn to the cultural weight and history of the brick as an ancient archetypal form, as well as a common element of architectural forms found throughout northern Europe. The brick represents a perfect architectural unit, based both on mathematical proportions and on the size of the human hand, and as such it is a potent signifier of human civilisation. With their layered structure, brick constructions also speak to Kirbeky’s training as a geologist, in a way comparable to the layering of paint in his canvases (see for example The Siege of Constantinople 1995 (Tate T07460). Kirkeby has also linked his interest in minimalism in the 1960s to geology: ‘what little I’ve learned from geology, that’s actually very minimalistic – how you have the joints and the strata. The basic idea is that the lowest in a group of layers is the oldest. That’s very simple, but nevertheless a fascinating idea.’ (Quoted in Galleri Susanne Ottesen 2015, p.63.)

Important reference points for Kirkeby were the Grundtvigs Church in the Bispebjerg district of Copenhagen (1921–40), near the house where he grew up, as well as medieval churches and Central American Mayan ruins. This rich cultural history would infuse his later brick sculptures more and more explicitly, beginning with his first brick sculpture built with mortar, The House 1973 (Ikast, Denmark), a small house with complex ornamental brickwork built as a children’s playhouse. In 1975–6 Kirkeby even used brick structures as supports and framing devices for his paintings, further integrating his interest in ornamental brickwork and ecclesiastical architecture with his painting practice, itself heavily laden with art historical references.

The brick sculptures occupy an important position in Kirkeby’s varied output. They are among his most recognisable works thanks to their inclusion in key exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale in 1976, Skulptur. Projekte in Munster in 1987, documenta VII in 1982 and documenta IX in 1992, and have led to the development of functional architectural projects, such as the museum buildings in Vemb, Aars and Aarhus, Denmark. Many of his brick sculptures are permanently installed in a number of cities throughout Denmark and Europe, including Copenhagen, Bergen, Munster, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Stuttgart, Bremen, Karlsruhe and Seville. In London, they made an appearance as site-specific sculptures outside the Hayward Gallery in 1986, as well as being included in an exhibition of Kirkeby’s paintings and sculptures held at the Tate Gallery in 1998, where an imposing series of interconnected brick sculptures bisected the Duveen Galleries in what is now Tate Britain.

Further reading
Per Kirkeby et al., Per Kirkeby. Brick Sculpture and Architecture Catalogue Raisonné, Cologne 1997.
Dorothy Kosinski, ‘A Conversation with Per Kirkeby’, in Dorothy Kosinski and Klaus Ottmann (eds.), Per Kirkeby. Paintings and Sculpture, New Haven and London 2012, pp.25–40.
‘Hans Ulrich Obrist Interviews Per Kirkeby at His Home in Hellerup’, in Lawrence Weiner – Per Kirkeby, exhibition catalogue, Galleri Susanne Ottesen, Copenhagen 2015, pp.59–70

Valentina Ravaglia
July 2017

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