Per Kirkeby

Stele (Læsø V)


Sorry, no image available

Not on display

Per Kirkeby 1938–2018
Bricks and mortar
Object: 2420 × 660 × 590 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the New Carlsberg Foundation 2017


Stele (Læsø V) 1984 is a pillar-like sculpture made out of Danish standard-size red bricks (224 x 108 x 54 mm), with 18 millimetre mortar joints, and standing to a height of 2420 millimetres. It is one of a number of similar ‘stele’ dating from 1984 that were originally built to mark the boundaries of an area of dense vegetation in the garden of Kirkeby’s house and studio on the island of Læsø, Denmark, where they are still located, alongside twelve other semi-functional brick sculptures to form a sort of sculpture park (see also Stele [Læsø III] [Tate T14914] and Stele [Læsø IV] [Tate T14915]). The versions of Stele (Læsø III), Stele (Læsø IV) and Stele (Læsø V) in Tate’s collection are thus reconstructed as temporary installations for display, according to the artist’s instructions. The term ‘stela’ (plural ‘stele’) is used to describe an ancient upright stone slab or column, typically bearing an inscription or relief design, often serving as a gravestone or other commemorative marker. Although Kirbeby’s ‘stele’ have a monolithic presence, each of their faces appears to be different to the others, due to variations in the number of bricks laid and, in the case of Stele (Læsø IV) and Stele (Læsø V), vertical gaps which interrupt their surface and create pronounced light and shadow effects. These gaps enhance the verticality of the pillars and give them a graphic quality which can be compared to the American abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman’s (1905–1970) ‘zip’ paintings, an influence explicitly acknowledged by Kirkeby (in Galleri Susanne Ottesen 2015, p.61). The vertical gaps, which Kirkeby calls ‘transformers’ or ‘shifts’ (Otto Kapfinger, in Kirkeby et al. 1997, p.26), can also be seen as a direct reference to the ribbed façade of the Grundtvigs Church in the Bispebjerg district of Copenhagen (1921–40), near the house where he grew up.

Kirkeby used red bricks for the first time in 1966, in the installation House. Fence. Brick. Prior to that, in 1965, he had started to use yellow bricks in works such as Copenhagen I and Copenhagen II, both 1965–6 (Tate T14917, T14918). 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.

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 the 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 his brick works was both a way to arrange the bricks in an ornamental pattern and to obviously link them 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. 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, as well as the Grundtvigs Church, were 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

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like

In the shop